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Home » Officer Columns » Rallying in Support of Striking Lyric Opera Orchestra Musicians

Rallying in Support of Striking Lyric Opera Orchestra Musicians

  -  AFM International President

Following is the text of a speech I gave October 12, in Chicago’s Daley Plaza in support of striking Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians.

Hello Sweet Home Chicago! It’s a privilege to be here with officers of our great affiliated Local 10-208, the Chicago Federation of Musicians, folks from the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Illinois State AFL-CIO, and of course, members of our Lyric Opera Orchestra.

From the Haymarket Affair in 1886 that erupted over the fight for the eight-hour workday, to the Pullman railroad strike in 1894 over corporate greed and poverty, to the Memorial Day Massacre during the “Little Steel” strikes in 1937, Chicago’s rich labor history stems back to the formative years of our nation’s economy and the modern labor movement.

Chicago is a city that has brought so much great music to America and the world— ragtime with Jelly Roll Morton; blues greats Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Buddy Guy; Nat King Cole and Gene Ammons; Benny Goodman; Sam Cooke; the Chicago Transit Authority (also known as Chicago); Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and the great musicians we are here to honor and support today: the musicians of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra.

As we stand here shoulder to shoulder with our Opera Orchestra brothers and sisters, we also celebrate the cultural and artistic excellence you’ve accomplished here in Chicago. It’s an inspiration to music lovers throughout the world. On behalf of the entire membership of the American Federation of Musicians, I want to thank the people of Chicago for all that you have done in support of great music and great musicians.

You did that by working together and getting involved in your great city. You did it by making a commitment to improving the lives of the people of Chicago: performing artists, musicians, working people, and their families. You did it by refusing to stand on the sidelines.

You refused to let the world go by without investing in the wonderful talent Chicago has to offer. A great civil rights activist once said, “If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor.”

The people of Chicago, the AFM, the musicians of Chicago, and the Lyric Opera Orchestra have never been neutral. Our music has always been part of that age-old struggle for dignity and respect, a struggle that gave us the workplace gains that many take for granted today.

The relationship between this great city, the opera company, and its great orchestra has been a productive one for some 65 years, where the production and performance of world-class opera has changed so many lives for the better.

We come here to enjoy these great opera performances, for culture and for the joy of living in this incredible city, and like a great Texas musician once said, we come here when we need to ease our worried minds. And there are troubled waters right here in Chicago, right now.

This is a situation where you cannot afford to be neutral. Decade after decade, we’ve seen American jobs outsourced overseas, our real wages decline, our benefits dwindle, and our job loads increase. Our full-time jobs are under pressure to become part-time or to be eliminated, and unfortunately, the folks who manage opera musicians have decided that it is our turn in this cycle of pain.

Here in Chicago, the trail leads to the opera company itself, and particularly, its manager, Anthony Freud. The relationship between the orchestra and management is suffering.

AFM President Ray Hair speaks in Chicago’s Daley Plaza in support of Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians during their October strike.

Let me give you some facts and figures.

Freud wants to eliminate five positions from the orchestras’ complement that would snuff out the jobs of five musicians from the orchestra. He wants to cut the pay of the remaining orchestra members by 8%. He wants to slash the number of performances from 93 to only 56 each season. He wants to cut the number of work weeks from 24 to 22, and he wants to stop all of the opera’s popular radio broadcasts that are heard, not just here in Chicago, but around the world. It’s a no-win situation and it is unacceptable to us.

And all this despite the perfect, sold-out performances we’ve given, the recordings we’ve inspired you to buy, the spirits we’ve raised, the recognition we’ve brought to our benefactors and the money we’ve made for the businesses in this city. It’s not enough for Freud anymore. But if you look at management’s numbers, I think you’ll be as concerned as I am.

The opera company’s budget has risen by more than $24 million—from $60 million in 2012, right after Freud showed up, to $84 million today. But during that same period, the orchestra’s share of the budget shrank from 14.6% to 11.9%. Where’d all the money go? Not to the orchestra. One place to look is the salary of Anthony Freud. He got a 16% raise in 2016. He makes $800,000 each year, but wants musicians to give back $6,000 each, to an opera company that today has net assets of more than $300 million.

I think it’s time for Freud to face the music in Chicago and explain why he can figure out how to fatten up his own wallet and those of his management staff, but can’t do it for Lyric Opera musicians. The concessions being asked of this orchestra are completely and totally unjustified.

Brothers and sisters, too often today we find that we are no longer dealing with executives who take a reasonable approach to labor relations. We are dealing with a new breed of managers who have forgotten what was clearly understood in the old days: for the employer-employee relationship to function there must be a fair bargain. At the end of the day, we need to know that the wages and benefits we receive are fair.

The concept of a fair bargain is at the heart of labor relations. It is what motivates us to go to work. It is what allows us to provide for a family and contribute to the economy. It’s what made this country great because workers were motivated to work productively. We must work harder than ever to protect that concept.

Freud has been quoted as saying that the orchestra strike came as a total surprise to him. Really? And he’s also said that he has to run a business and have a business-like solution. Well, great music is one of the highest forms of artistic expression. It’s not exactly a business. Neither are educational institutions or museums. Musicians and orchestras are an invaluable artistic resource for Chicago and the region and they should be afforded protection from the whims of managers who think that every dollar paid to a musician is a dollar the manager doesn’t get. And from what I’ve heard, Freud and the opera company have no plan for the orchestra other than to offer them less work and less money.

You see, it’s about some phony new business model—as in “structural deficit”—to be paid for by those who make the music so that managers who don’t can keep their jobs and get a raise. It’s about management without music. It’s the ugly face of union busting, and you can look at opera management and see it right here in Chicago. We offer joy from our performances, but today, all we get is pain. I tell you the Lyric Opera Orchestra is an asset to this city, not a liability.

I don’t know about you, but I have a real hard time looking at folks on the other side of the table who couldn’t do what we musicians do in a million years—who make way more money than we do, who ask us to take bread off our table and give it up to them. You see brothers and sisters, the managers wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for us. Every dollar in their pocket was put there by our labor—our music. People come to see and hear us, not them. But the managers believe it is they themselves who matter the most, that they are the focal point of importance, despite their failure to manage. They think that because they are giving us a place to play, the act of playing, in and of itself, should be considered a part of our compensation.

And if we don’t put a stop to this union-busting attitude, no one ever will. It almost destroyed our country’s financial system 10 years ago, it’s threatening to destroy much of what labor has achieved over the past century, and it’s about to destroy the Chicago Lyric Opera. If this great orchestra is silenced because of management’s attitudes, it will be an irreparable, inestimable loss to this community.

We have to turn up the volume. We can’t overcome bad management by thinking that, if we are good little boys and girls and give them back some of our hard-earned gains, or if we make a concession or two and grovel hard enough, maybe they’ll go easy on us. We can’t do that. This is not the time to grovel to the union busters. If what has happened elsewhere in this country has taught us anything, it’s that, if you grovel now, you’ll have more to grovel for later. If you don’t believe me, just look around at what they’re trying to do to us here, in every workplace, in our pension funds, in every political arena, in every state in this country.

I say stand with us—stand with our courageous local officers, committee members, and rank-and-file musicians who are organizing and are prepared for this fight. And we know only too well that, if we don’t resist now, the managers will use everything they can against us much more quickly. If we run, they’ll throw more at us to accelerate our speed. They won’t lose any sleep at night worrying what to do with musicians, their union, or anyone else fleeing before the storm.

This is our struggle, and it is the same for musicians and workers everywhere. It’s a lot on our shoulders, but we can rise to the occasion and meet the challenge by being better and reaching for our potential. We make music to uplift the human spirit. We will uplift ourselves and we will play perfectly for those who look to us for hope.

But most importantly, we have to challenge ourselves and this wonderful city to take care of each other. Nothing will get better if we don’t do better.

We must support those who care about us, and I can tell you that no one cares more about Chicago, Illinois, than the musicians of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Standing together, we can make a difference. We can do it—we can recreate that unity of purpose, as we’ve done over and over again throughout history. Nothing can withstand the power of our music and thousands of us working together for unity.

Today, now, we can become leaders of change in Chicago. Thousands of AFM musicians stand together with the great city of Chicago, AFM Local 10-208, and with the Lyric Opera Orchestra on this important day. When one of us is down, we are all down. Your struggles are our struggles, but together, we will make this world a better place. Thank you for asking me to come to Chicago to speak and be with you today. God bless the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra, and God bless you all.

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