Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians go on strike

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DETROIT (AP) - Musicians dressed in tuxedos and black performance attire hit the picket line Monday after refusing to accept pay cuts of more than 30 percent demanded by the financially struggling Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Musicians would normally be preparing this week for their first, still-scheduled performances at the Max M. Fisher Music Center in downtown Detroit and elsewhere. Instead, about 65 of them marched in front of center while a French horn quartet composed of orchestra musicians serenaded their picketing colleagues. They carried signs reading “DSO Quality since 1887,” “On strike DSO unfair” and “Keep your DSO in the Top 10.”

Haden McKay, a cellist and spokesman for the musicians, called the strike “the only weapon we have” to keep the orchestra from being permanently harmed.

“If we were to continue to work under their contract, we would see a very bad talent drain,” said McKay, a 27-year orchestra veteran. “Some of our top players are already getting phone calls from all around the country.”

Symphony management declared an impasse Sept. 1 and began implementing a 33 percent base pay cut for orchestra veterans, from $104,650 to $70,200 in the first year. Musicians had offered a 22 percent reduction in the first year to $82,000, which would increase in subsequent years.

The two sides met most recently with state and federal mediators Sept. 24 but didn’t reach a deal.

No bargaining sessions were scheduled. The musicians’ union has filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra Chief Executive and President Anne Parsons told The Associated Press Monday afternoon she has no “crystal ball,” and nobody can say with certainty that salary or benefit cuts would damage the orchestra’s artistic reputation.

She said the musicians are not alone: Music Director Leonard Slatkin has given back more than 20 percent of his salary and the staff has reduced administrative costs by 30 percent in the past two years, including layoffs, salary cuts and other benefit reductions.

“We’re not necessarily lowering our quality, we’re adjusting to an economic condition in order to stay in business,” she said. “If everyone can embrace that and move on together, we will be successful. If the orchestra stays out on strike and decides they won’t perform … it won’t be successful.”

Parsons said she respects the musicians’ passion but hopes that they return to work in time to rehearse for concerts this week in Detroit and Lansing, as well as a recording project next week. Parsons said she also has heard from prominent benefactors who have offered more financial support once the contract dispute is resolved.

“We have every intention of continuing to do the things that make this orchestra great,” she said.

Violinist Joe Striplin, an orchestra member for 38 years, said salaries help ensure the ensemble’s stature, and the cuts being imposed would create a “third-class orchestra” in a hard-hit town that could use a few more success stories.

“I’m a native Detroiter, and I think Detroit needs … to have something to be proud of,” Striplin said. “We’re one of Detroit’s winning entities.”

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