Mommy and Daddy Are Quite Angry

When people hear that workers are on strike in Detroit, they automatically think of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which was founded in 1935 (the year the landmark Wagner Act became law), and which, going back to its glory days in the 1950s, has served as the template and gold standard for every industrial union in the country.

But the strikers this time aren’t the beleaguered UAW.  This time, they’re the 84 members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians.  The DSO members have been on strike since October 4, opposing management’s efforts to rip out the heart and lungs of their contract.

Unfortunately, like management teams all across the U.S., DSO’s bosses are using the combination of the national recession and organized labor’s perceived institutional weakness as the basis for re-inventing their relationship with the union.  Management feels they’re on a monumental roll.  Accordingly, sensing the musicians’ vulnerability, they’re coming at them with everything they’ve got.

In addition to demanding an immediate 33-percent cut in base wages for current members, and a 42-percent cut for new members, DSO management is calling for major concessions in basic benefits (pensions and health care) and asking that long-standing work rules be changed.  In other words, they’re intent on eviscerating the union contract.

While there’s always been a creepy “paternalistic” aspect to labor relations in the U.S., it gotten a lot creepier lately.  An analogy:  Think of two scenarios, each involving a teenager whose parents have just learned that their kid is flunking his math class.

In Scenario A, the parents attack the problem by laying down new rules and procedures.  Math homework will now be the priority; it will be done first, and there will be no TV until it’s finished.  A math tutor will be hired, a regimen will be followed, the earlier chapters of the textbook will be reviewed to determine at which point the kid “lost contact,” and they will proceed from there.

In Scenario B, the parents not only make math homework the priority, they use the kid’s poor grade as an opportunity to re-invent him as a teenager.  They insist he stop hanging out with his low-life friends, that he stop wearing the latest fashions, stop using the latest slang, stop listening to the latest music, stop eating junk food, and stop talking and texting on the phone.

They take away his car.  They insist he get a haircut, start doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, being nicer to his sister, going to bed earlier, and referring to adults as “sir” and “ma’am.”  This kid’s math grade has made him so vulnerable, his parents are using it as a launching-pad for a full assault.  And that’s what’s happening to the unions.

Instead of addressing economic concerns the way they used to be addressed — by asking for temporary wage freezes, or side-stepping pay raises altogether and adopting profit-sharing, work incentives or stock offerings — companies (who, clearly, see themselves as America’s “strict, responsible parents”) are aggressively going after everything that ever appeared on their wish lists, and steamrolling loyal workers in the process.

But there’s been a surprise or two with this DSO strike.  For one thing, the musicians aren’t the wimps or dilettantes the company thought they were.  Instead of behaving like lily-livered flautists and skittish harpists, they’re behaving like brass-balled professionals.  Indeed, they’re behaving like old-fashioned UAW members.

For another thing, and in something of a surprise, the citizens of Detroit have been supportive of the strikers.  In fact, so disappointed and angry are civic donors with management’s harsh treatment of the musicians (who are living off a $150/week strike fund, plus money earned from fund-raising concerts), citizen groups have formally protested, and donations to the Orchestra have plummeted.

Founded in 1914, the DSO has long been a source of enormous cultural pride.  The good people of Detroit don’t want to see it diminished or disgraced.  Of course, this cultural legacy means nothing to management.  Like hyenas attracted by the scent of blood or the sight of an animal in distress, they’re fully aroused, ready to move in for the kill.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.