Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians, pictured here with music director Leonard Slatkin, on Wednesday voted in favor of ratifying their current contract, which expires Sept. 1. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
What a difference three years can make. Wednesday afternoon, Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians approved a new contract eight months before the present one expires Sept. 1.
It’s a sharp contrast to October 2010, when contract talks collapsed, leading to a bitter six-month strike.
Total pay and benefits under the new three-year contract will grow by 5.3 percent. Salaries, which were cut 23 percent in 2011, will increase two percent a year. Base salary will rise from $82,880 to $87,960 in 2017.
Kenneth Thompkins, a negotiator and principal trombonist, called the contract “a great collaborative effort on everyone’s part. I can’t say enough about the professionalism on both sides.”
Thompkins acknowledged the contract has only “modest increases.” But he added, “Our first priority was to show gains so the outside world would see the DSO is a place where we could attract and retain the greatest talent. I think we’ve done that successfully.”
In a first, musicians volunteered to play four uncompensated fundraisers or other high-profile events that could generate significant revenue for the orchestra.
Musicians will continue to perform 36 weeks with four weeks vacation. Those who sign up for “optional work,” such as community-service work playing at a hospital, will up their salaries by $5,500 a year, down from the $6,900 in the present contract.
The contract also recommits to growing the orchestra to 85 players plus two librarians. At present, the DSO has just 74 musicians under contract. For concerts, open positions are filled by temporary substitutes, often from other orchestras.
DSO executive vice-president Paul Hogle said the only thing keeping the orchestra from reaching that goal immediately is the time it takes to hold auditions.
“If I could hire 11 new musicians, I’d do that tomorrow,” he said. “We have 12 auditions a year. One or two a year is the norm.” Last year, seven DSO auditions drew 630 applicants.
Chicago-based orchestra consultant Drew McManus takes a measured view of the ratification.
“It’s not bad,” he said, “but it’s certainly not parity” — that is, getting back to pre-strike pay levels. “Parity seems to be a gone goal for Detroit,” he added.
Thompkins admitted there’s always more one would have liked. “But given the current landscape with arts institutions across the country,” he said, “we were very happy to get what we got.”
Many close to the negotiations credit DSO board chairman Phillip Fisher with setting the positive tone that led to success.
On parity, he said, “It’s our ambition to pay musician scale at a level we can sustain. We want to get to where the DSO is the first choice for excellent musicians.”