On eve of CSO strike, management makes public its latest contract offer; musicians call it “snake oil”

Sat Mar 09, 2019 at 2:54 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

UPDATED. Late Friday night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association released a letter sent by president Jeff Alexander to CSO members with management’s latest contract proposal.

Last month the CSO musicians voted to go on strike Sunday if a new agreement is not reached by 3 p.m. The musicians’ current contract extension expires Sunday night at 11:59 p.m. Tomorrow’s CSO matinee will take place as scheduled.

The current management proposal raises the musician base pay 5% over the three-year contract: $160,606 (1% increase) the first year, following by $163,818 and $167,094 (2% increases) the following years.

Management states that these increases would make the CSO the highest-paid orchestra in the country, apart from  the substantial housing and cost of living bonuses given to players in Boston and San Francisco, which are much more expensive places to live.

The main area of conflict appears to be CSO management wanting to shift retirement benefits from a Defined Benefit plan to a Direct Contribution plan. 

CSO management claims that the rapidly escalating cost of its current DB plan is financially untenable and, if allowed to continue, would endanger the financial health of the institution. This year, the letter states, the CSO was required to put in $3.8 million, an amount that would nearly double and rise to $36 million over the next eight years.

Management claims the new DC plan would maintain or improve pension benefits while putting the plans on a much more secure financial footing.

Other elements in the contract as outlined in the letter:

  • Increases ancillary payments related to scale by the same percentages
  • Retain current medical, dental and life insurance coverage with no increase in weekly contributions toward the cost of the premiums, and no reduction in the plans’ features
  • Retains paid time off at a minimum of 12 weeks
  • Increases long-term disability benefit from $10,000 to $15,000 per month
  • Increases paid parental leave from 4 to 6 weeks
  • Puts limits on the number of times the Association or Ravinia can schedule film concerts
  • Establishes a requirement for two consecutive days off at Ravinia at least four times each summer
  • Limits the Association from scheduling daytime services on the day of the downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade
  • Guarantees that Merry, Merry Chicago! concerts will be scheduled as “Members Of” services
  • Limits Saturday rehearsals during the Downtown Season (in all venues) to a total of eight
  • Requires pre-concert lectures held on stage to conclude 45 minutes prior to the concert start time
  • Removes the Second Harp position from the roster of full time Members, while maintaining the number of full time Members at 106

The only additional proposed reductions that would produce savings for the Association are:

  • Reducing per diem on international tours by $20 when breakfast is provided by the Association through the hotel, i.e. eliminating double payment for breakfast 
  • Eliminating the 4% vacation payment to Temporary Musicians
  • The hourly rate to judge Civic auditions will be $100 per hour and the fee for community workshops will be $120 per hour (with a two-hour minimum for offsite workshops)


The PR firm representing the musicians union released a response to the CSOA letter from the union negotiating committee Saturday afternoon.

While stating that there are “some encouraging aspects” to the latest proposal, the musicians say that it doesn’t come close to addressing its “fundamental concerns.”

They maintain that the proposed wages are not competitive with other major orchestras, and that the salary percentage increase is less than “virtually all other major orchestras, dropping us further behind relative to those groups, and does not keep pace with inflation.”

They also firmly reject the proposed switch from a Defined Benefit pension plan to a Direct Contribution plan. “Their proposal strips the membership of that guaranteed benefit, and shifts the investment risk to the individual member. Jeff’s email paints an unrealistic, snake oil, ‘rosy scenario’ sales job of their proposals.”

The union also claims that management’s letter doesn’t address other element of the contract proposal, including “reducing sabbatical weeks, reducing substitute pay, and eliminating the $3,000 annual individual pension supplement.”

Check back to CCR for updates.


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5 Responses to “On eve of CSO strike, management makes public its latest contract offer; musicians call it “snake oil””

  1. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 4:45 am by Chuck

    I am a 30+ year subscriber to the CSO. My opinion is that the musicians pay should be increased more than is being offered. Also, the world is (has) moved from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution pension plans. While I don’t know the details of CSO management’s position on this — and the details are important — I don’t think such a move needs to be feared.

    Paid financial helpers, which are likely being used by CSO management to invest the funds set aside for funding the current Defined Benefit plan, in the aggregate hinder wealth creation, by the compounding effect of their “helper charges”. Rather than this, a musician putting their Defined Contributions into a low cost S & P Index 500 fund will almost assuredly do better in the long run, that is, end up with more wealth. Warren Buffett lays out the facts beautifully in the “American Tailwind” section of his most recent Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder letter.

  2. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 6:57 pm by Season Ticket Holder

    Musicians are way overpaid if you ask me. This is the main reason I don’t contribute to the orchestra besides my subscription. Put them on a 401K. How many average workers get a pension nowdays? Hardly anyone.

    Government welfare for the rich is the only way the musicians could be paid this much. It’s also why tickets are so expensive that the house is 40% empty most of the time. Cut the pay in half and it would become a viable institution.

  3. Posted Mar 11, 2019 at 2:03 pm by Season Ticket Holder 2

    We will not be renewing this year. Tickets are getting way too expensive, with the conductor getting 2 million plus a year, and the musicians getting 160,000 each, no wonder tickets are so expensive!! Not saying they are not worth it, just the way it is being carried out, is nonviable for most people to afford to see them.

  4. Posted Mar 11, 2019 at 3:50 pm by Lee Shirer

    The argument that musicians are “way overpaid” doesn’t hold water. A top attorney or accountant makes many times more money as do professional athletes. And make no mistake, performers at the level of the CSO are competitive athletes. Some people try to see orchestras as a business and complain that they don’t really produce a physical product and that ticket sales alone can only cover a fraction of any orchestra budget. Orchestras are far more than a business, they are a celebration of the best humanity has to offer on many levels. When you hear them play, you are transported and transformed by great music performed well. It has real meaning!

    I own a small business and am a professional musician who has played with the CSO. So, I see that both sides are to be given respect. Hopefully the management will see the sincere concerns of the musicians and that the musicians will be able to fairly judge the changes suggested by management and come to an equitable agreement soon.

  5. Posted Mar 12, 2019 at 3:22 pm by Raquelle

    I agree with other commenters. . . the tickets are way too expensive, so much so that I haven’t been able to attend myself nor take my children in the last few years. It’s getting ridiculous.

    At the same time, I acknowledge that players’ talent and artistic contributions are nearly impossible to quantify. However, a base $160K/year salary (and keep in mind, folks, that that would be for a bright new shiny player!) is still a healthy salary, particularly when the players’ prestige as CSO musicians grants them the opportunity to supplement their incomes by performing in other ways and by teaching lessons. I bet the vast majority of players make way more than $160K/year!

    I have also heard that they have excellent health care coverage.

    It’s really hard to see what they’re so upset about. To my knowledge police officers and fire departments are the only organizations who receive pensions and that’s because those people quite literally risk their lives. That’s, ahem, hardly the case at the CSO.

    The only other organization of which I’m aware that gives out pensions is the State of Illinois. I believe our great state’s bond rating is that of “junk.” Does the CSO want to follow suit?? Times has changed, friends!

    The players really need to grow-up. It’s very hard to have any sympathy for them with this deal.

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