Support the Detroit Symphony Musicians Strike!

The musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) went out on strike on October 4, in opposition to drastic cuts in their pay as well as the slashing of their benefits. Management insisted the musicians take a 33 percent cut in salary, and that newly picked players would be employed at a 42 percent reduction in pay. Management put an end to insurance for members of the orchestra, from life and instrument insurance to dental, medical, and vision insurance, and ended contributions to the musicians’ pension plans. Management also intends to reduce the size of the orchestra, from 96 full-time positions, to 85.

The musicians of the DSO were willing to take a 22 percent reduction in pay, but all agreed that a 33 percent reduction, along with the other cuts by management, would result in the impairment of the DSO and perhaps even its destruction as a world class orchestra. They decided to strike, and the Detroit Federation of Musicians, Local 5 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), stands with them in that fateful decision. According to the AFM:

“Under management’s proposed contract, the DSO would fall from 10th to 19th in the rankings of American symphony orchestras. What this drop to 19th would mean: The DSO may no longer be able to attract the best musicians to audition to replace DSO musicians moving to other major orchestras. Six have already left over the past three years. The DSO may no longer get the internationally renowned guest conductors and artists who usually prefer to perform with Top Ten orchestras. It may no longer remain the world-class orchestra its audiences enjoy and deserve.”

How can this be the fate of classical musicians in the richest and most powerful nation on earth? Founded in 1914, the DSO is the fourth oldest symphony orchestra in the U.S., and it should be protected as a national treasure. The orchestra is known around the world for its professionalism and dedication to the musical arts, and for nearly 100 years it has uplifted and inspired millions of Americans. It is a national shame that the musicians of the DSO are forced to go on strike, but they do so for concerns much larger than their own self-interest. They are striking to assure that Americans have continued access to live performances of the world’s greatest music; in effect they are waging a battle in defense of one of the highest expressions of artistic achievement - and every American should stand with them.

Almost a month before the strike, the Detroit AFL-CIO invited the DSO musicians to march at the head of Detroit’s September 6th Labor Day Parade, as a clear demonstration of support for the musicians fight to save the orchestra. At that Labor Day rally, Ray Hair, the president of AFM International, said:

“Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians, again struggling against severe, unjustified concessions sought by the DSO’s management, have the unconditional and unerring support of the entire membership of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada. By attempting to fund management failures with musicians’ livelihoods, pension and health benefits, the company may ultimately cause the demise of one of the world’s finest orchestras - a priceless artistic treasure - that has done nothing but bring joy to the citizens of Detroit and the world.”

The press is largely indifferent or hostile to the striking musicians of the DSO, so the best source of news and information comes from the musicians themselves; their voice can be read with great clarity at The Musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a website set up by the strikers to clarify their position, promote their struggle, and elicit the public’s support. The site maintains an archive of video presentations that tell the musicians’ side of the story.

The strikers are asking for cash contributions of any amount to help maintain the DSO Musicians’ Fund. They are also asking supporters to write or e-mail the DSO Chairman of the Board, Stanley Frankel, to inquire as to why management refuses to negotiate a proper contract to help “save the orchestra.”

Just one day before the DSO musicians went out on strike, Joel Schechter, a professor of theater arts at San Francisco State University, wrote an editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle titled, WPA for artists program’s time has come again. In making the argument for a new WPA, Schechter wrote; “the federal government hired 10,000 theater artists a year, as well as thousands of musicians, painters, writers and dancers, and put them to work across the United States as part of its huge jobs programs between 1935 and 1939.”

A new WPA would not only alleviate the problems faced by the musicians of the DSO, it would eliminate the cutbacks, closures, and downsizing suffered by a number of other symphony orchestras across the U.S., not to mention bring relief to thousands of artists, arts groups, and institutions nationwide. Schechter’s pronouncement that a new WPA should be formed without delay is timely; a position I have been promulgating since December of 2008 when I joined Foreign Policy in Focus and Split this Rock Poetry Festival in pressuring the Obama administration to create an Arts Stimulus Plan - an online petition to that affect is still in circulation.

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