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Walking The Line

Monday, October 04, 2010 - 11:32 AM

I come from a union family.  I walked my first picket line when I was 6, along with my brothers Jerry, who was also 6 (we are the same age every December, and it was Christmas season), and possibly Jimmy, who would’ve been 4 at the time and therefore beneath my notice.

My dad and the rest of the building workers at RCA headquarters in lower Manhattan were striking.  I don’t know what the specifics were, but my mom had made signs for us as we walked in the line with the grownups.  Mine said “Who killed Santa Claus?  RCA!”  We must’ve made quite a sight, because I clearly remember a lady hollering out of the window of a passing bus, “Who killed Santa Claus?” and the workers on the line shouting in unison, “RCA!” 

So when I hear about a strike, my first inclination is to side with labor.  Today, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians went on strike because they don’t want to agree to a contract from management that slashes their base pay by 30% while adding community outreach programs to their job.  It’s not like the musicians aren’t trying to help – they’ve offered to take a 22% pay cut, to be increased by year 3 to something within 10% of current pay. 

But here’s where the situation becomes fuzzy.  This is Detroit, where the economic distress is severe and lots of veteran auto workers and other families are having real trouble making ends meet.  It’s hard to imagine the labor rank and file at, say, Ford sympathizing with a group of musicians trying to protect their $100,000+ jobs.  In the auto industry, deemed by the highest levels of American government to be Too Big To Fail, workers can strike and be reasonably sure that whatever the outcome, the company will still be there, and there will always be another shot at contract negotiations down the road.  With the DSO running large deficits and steadily eating into its endowment, the DSO musicians run the very real risk of winning the battle only to lose the war if the orchestra disappears entirely.  And the DSO runs the risk of becoming a second-rate orchestra if it wins this battle and loses its best players to other, better paying orchestra jobs. 

 It’s a tough situation on both sides, and I guess what I’d want to know is – is management also taking 30% pay cuts and adding work?  While I can’t help sympathizing with the players (I know I wouldn’t react well to a 30% pay cut with added work), they also run the risk of appearing to be grasping and greedy in a city where a lot of people would give their right arm for a job that pays over 70K and requires no mindless assembly line work.*  This is not the way to endear the orchestra to the community it is supposed to serve and on which it bases its existence.  

What do you think of the DSO musicians’ decision to strike?  Leave a comment.

*Of course, orchestral musicians around the country complain that they are simply a musical assembly line, told what to play and even how to play it.  Which makes me think, if that’s how playing music feels to you, then your playing probably isn’t going to be very good.   


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