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Chicago Symphony Strike Settled with New Contract

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s strike came to an end in late April, as musicians ratified a new five-year contract. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped in to assist with negotiations, bringing both sides of the negotiating table to his office for a meeting. The strike was resolved two days later.

Lasting seven weeks, the strike was the longest in the orchestra’s history. The sticking point was a proposed change to retirement benefits, moving musicians from a defined-benefit pension plan, which guarantees a set amount in retirement, to a defined-contribution plan. A compromise was reached with the new contract: Current musicians will shift to a defined-contribution plan and will be responsible for the prudent investment of their individual accounts, but the organization will guarantee that they will receive the same amount in retirement as they would have had under the previous plan. That guarantee will not be available to new musicians coming into the orchestra.

Musicians will also receive raises between 2% and 3.5% in each of the five years of the contract, bringing base salary to $181,272 by the final year. Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) member Steve Lester, bassist and chair of the negotiating committee, remarks: “After about a year of negotiations, we are victorious in our efforts by protecting and maintaining our secure retirement and gaining lost ground on our annual salaries.”

chicago symphony

Rahm Emanuel Offers Assistance in Ending Chicago Symphony Strike

chicago symphony
Reverend Jesse Jackson (center) stopped by to show support for striking Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians, members of 10-208 (Chicago, IL). With Jackson (L to R) are Russell Hershow, an enthusiastic patron, David Sanders, Susan Synnestvedt, Peter Conover, and Stephanie Jeong.

On April 24 Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped forward with an offer to help the parties reach agreement and end the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) strike, then in its seventh week.

“For more than 125 years the CSO has been a crown jewel within Chicago’s rich cultural landscape,” Emanuel noted in a statement. “None of us want to see that jewel tarnished. After speaking with both parties, it appears that we should be able to achieve an end to this seven-week strike. Therefore, I am offering the services of my office to serve as a forum where both parties can work in good faith to facilitate an equitable and fair solution and that brings an end to the current impasse.”

chicago symphony
Chicago Symphony Musicians, members of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), on strike since March 10, have overwhelmingly rejected management’s “last, best, final offer.”

Striking musicians and CSO management have both accepted the mayor’s offer, which comes in the wake of CSO management’s rejection on April 16 of a contract proposal brought forward by CSO musicians.

“The Chicago Federation of Musicians offered another compromise proposal, which was flatly rejected by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association,” says Steve Lester of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), bassist and chair of the musicians’ committee. “The association restated their ‘last, best, and final’ offer [which was voted down overwhelmingly by musicians on April 8] and has not budged an inch, nor shared any new path for resolution.”

A major sticking point in negotiations is management’s proposal to eliminate the CSO’s defined benefit pension plan and replace it with a defined contribution plan. Analysis of the figures shows that, over the next 10 years, management’s proposal would actually cost the institution at least $11 million more than simply maintaining the existing pension plan. Management’s proposal would shift all investment risk to musicians. “We’re willing to share the risk,” says Lester. “But we’re not willing to assume 100% of the risk in investment returns and economic volatility.”

There has been an outpouring of support for striking CSO musicians. Illinois House Democrats led by Jan Schakowsky and including Danny Davis, Bobby Rush, Robin Kelly, Bill Foster, Raja Krishnamoorthi, and Chuy García came out to speak and deliver a letter of support from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), Representative Sean Casten (D-IL), and Reverend Jesse Jackson have stopped for conversations. Other musicians, patrons, and friends continue to walk with the CSO musicians.

On April 12 Local 802 (New York City) musicians held a rally of support at Lincoln Center. Brass sections from the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and  New York City Ballet orchestras performed.

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Local 802 (New York City) musicians held a rally of support for Chicago Symphony Orchestra Musicians at Lincoln Center. (L to R) are: Chris Martin, Tom Smith, Ethan Bensdorf, Mike Martin, and John Romero.

The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) issued a Call to Action on April 8 soliciting support for CSO musicians during this difficult time. On April 24, ICSOM announced that contributions had topped $200,000 with additional amounts being pledged daily.

CSO performances have been canceled through April 30. Since the strike began, CSO musicians have presented numerous free performances of their own throughout Chicago.

Chicago Symphony Announces Strong Ticket Sales

At its annual meeting in October, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) announced an increase in ticket revenue for the 2017-2018 season. At $23.3 million, sales were $1.1 million higher than the previous season. CSO boasted an 86% subscription renewal rate for its main series—a high rate within the industry.

The orchestra presented a total of 443 concerts and events throughout the season, selling out 63. That total includes 224 free community events, also up from the 2016-2017 season. CSO continues to reduce its deficit. It was close to breaking even for the 2018 fiscal year, reporting an operating deficit of $900,000.

CSO musicians, represented by Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) are negotiating a new contract. Their previous agreement expired September 16 and the two sides have agreed to a contract extension until spring 2019.