Motown Maestros Maul Mayor, Stifle Symphony


Musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra picketed Motor City Mayor Dave Bing's State of the City speech Tuesday, capping a strike that led to the cancellation of the orchestra's 2010-2011 season. In an AP story, a labor academic says that seeing classical musicians picketing is as surprising as seeing a wayward violin bow knock a man's toupée off his head:

"Musicians are not auto workers — they're not normally militant," [Clark University professor of industrial relations Gary] Chaison said. He saw the same dynamic running through Wisconsin and elsewhere affecting the Detroit Symphony.

"It's almost become a sign of good management to face down the unions," Chaison said. "At one time a good manager and good state administrators, governors and mayors would build their reputations on being able to get along with unions."

Contrary to Chaison's claim, symphony orchestra players strike pretty regularly. The players of Cleveland's world-class orchestra went on strike for less than a day in January. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra's union authorized a strike in December, but settled on a contract last month. (This was not the first instance of classical labor unrest in the Emerald City: In 2006, during a dispute between musicians and the Seattle Symphony's music director, principal horn John Cerminaro was subjected to a campaign of threats and vandalism.) In 2005, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians walked out for two months, returning to play only after the National Labor Relations Board declared the action an illegal strike. In 1996, the San Francisco, Atlanta, Oregon and Philadelphia Orchestras all walked out. The Honolulu Symphony struck in 1986, 1990 and throughout what would have been the 1993-1994 season. (The Honolulu Symphony declared bankruptcy last year.) 

In fact, you might say performing arts organizations are particularly important in understanding labor relations, because their unions comprise highly skilled workers who can actually bring production to a halt without violence, sympathy strikes, intimidation, or regulatory capture.

Arts unions never want to admit that shutting down business is the purpose of a strike: During the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, I got yelled at by the screenwriter of Rugrats In Paris after I suggested the WGA should have been congratulating itself on the unquestionable public service of having shut down the Golden Globes. Why not do a victory dance when you get objective proof of your clout? 

But while Hollywood studios are private, profit-making entities, classical performance always runs at a loss, with a "performance gap" that needs to be covered even when the show sells out. You can read my long-ago Reason column on this, and if you have any interest in the crabbed economics of classical performance, you should check out Robert J. Flanagan's report [pdf] on the Baumol Effect and the evolution of orchestral business models.

It should be pretty clear that a business plan where you lose money on every unit needs to be changed, and one of the DSO's proposals involves getting the players to act a little more entrepreneurially, by doing more promotional outreach. That plan doesn't make sense to at least one union member quoted in this Detroit News editorial:

After the so-called final contract offer was rejected by musicians Saturday, Joe Goldman, a member of the bargaining committee, asked, "Why do they want to pick this time to reinvent the model?"

The first answer to that question is that this is Detroit, and few organizations here have survived without changing their operating models to reflect the city's diminished economic status.

Beyond that, the DSO is staring at insolvency. Its banks have called $54 million in loans. Its endowment has dropped to $19 million from $80 million in a decade. Its donor base has withered to 5,000 from 25,000, with many of its most generous individual and corporate contributors no longer in the picture.

The choice is to change the model now, or go out of business within a few years.

The Free Press says more or less the same, with more sympathy for the musicians:

Now an organization that has been bleeding its endowment to stay afloat will have to dig even deeper into its seed corn to satisfy subscribers demanding refunds, and a corps of talented musicians who balked at a 23% salary cut will earn no salary at all. If either side has struck a blow for some transcendent principle of economic justice here, we fail to discern it.

It is sad but perhaps inevitable that many classical music lovers will react by invoking a pox on both sides' houses. Sad, because neither management nor union negotiators have behaved villainously in the 21-week strike. Inevitable, because the negotiators' inability to bridge the modest gap that separated them in the end suggests a failure of emotional intelligence, not an irreconcilable clash of principle.

If neither management nor labor is acting villainously but they can't come to agreement, that suggests there's less money available than either side wants to admit. You solve that problem by cutting costs and/or bringing in more revenue. An orchestra may work at a higher level of technical skill, organization and potential audience than a wedding band, but they're both in the same business. These days, classical performers love to pretend they're non-snooty regular Joes who want a broader audience, don't mind when bucktoothed yokels applaud between movements, and so on. But the economic model is still based on the idea that the product is a public good of such transcendent value that you don't have to bother selling it.