CSO strike is over as trustees and musicians approve new five-year contract

Sat Apr 27, 2019 at 7:57 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson


Agreement was reached on a new contract for Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians Saturday, ending the longest and most contentious strike in the orchestra’s 128-year history.

The CSO Association board of trustees voted Saturday night to approve a new five-year contract following unanimous ratification by the musicians’ union earlier in the day. The break in the standoff came Friday with mediation by Mayor Rahm Emanuel at City Hall, which helped bring the seven-week strike to an end.

Performances at Symphony Center are back on schedule beginning with Wednesday night’s concert with Itzhak Perlman and Evgeny Kissin.

The terms of the backdated contract (from 2018-2023) call for a 13.25% increase (14% compounded) in base salary over five years (2%, 2%, 2.5%, 3.25%, 3.5%), reaching an annual minimum salary of $181,272 in the 2022-23 season.

On the main point of contention, management’s desire to shift musicians from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, the CSOA has prevailed. All CSO musicians will now move into a new defined contribution plan, with players hired after July 2020 going directly into the plan.

The pot was sweetened by more favorable terms for musicians currently in the defined benefit plan to transition into the defined contribution plan.

There will be a phased transition into the new plan beginning July 1, 2020, with an annual employer contribution of 7.5% of the base salary plus additional payments for the first three years of the plan based on the musician’s age and years of service.

Further, there were no changes to the musicians’ current health care contribution amounts and co-pays, or to their insurance coverage and deductibles.

“The CSOA honors and values the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” said president Jeff Alexander in a statement released Saturday night. “Together, after months of discussion, hard work and compromise by both parties, we are looking forward to a path that builds on the extraordinary artistic legacy of the CSO and will bring the finest orchestral music through transformative performances, recordings, broadcasts and educational activities to audiences for generations to come. I am pleased that we have come to an agreement on a new contract that benefits both the musicians and the CSOA.”

“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been a cultural treasure for this community for 128 years,” said Helen Zell, chair of the board of trustees. “Our Trustees recognize and honor the exceptional artistry of the musicians. This new agreement reflects the excellence of the Orchestra and ensures that the musicians receive the outstanding compensation they deserve, while securing their and the CSOA’s long-term financial sustainability through the retirement plan transition.”

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15 Responses to “CSO strike is over as trustees and musicians approve new five-year contract”

  1. Posted Apr 27, 2019 at 9:04 pm by Benson

    Oh to have been a fly on the wall yesterday in Mr. Emanuel’s office. This agreement sure looks an awful lot like the one that should have been put into place 7 weeks ago…if not a year ago.

  2. Posted Apr 27, 2019 at 10:13 pm by Peter DG

    Interesting –

    “From the Chicago Federation of Musicians:
    Chicago – (April 27, 2019) – The Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) voted unanimously today to ratify a new five-year contract that includes a 13.25% increase in salary and protects their guaranteed retirement benefits, with no increases to the cost of musician health benefits. The new agreement preserves guaranteed minimum retirement benefits for current musicians and commits the parties to study options for providing retirement security for new hires.”

    Not exactly the same interpretation as quoted by LAJ above.

    I wonder which version of the agreement is correct. I trust it’s the CSOA’s. It appears that the CFM statements have been misleading throughout this process. When will the musicians realize they are being used?

  3. Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 12:12 pm by Gerry A

    Well, I’m glad that’s over and I’m wondering some of the same things that Benson & DG are wondering above.

    Also, I DO feel some Ill Will after all those performances were cancelled particularly the non CSO performances in Symphony Center and The Harris. And I DO think this could have been settled 7 weeks/a year ago.

    So while The Chicago Federation of Musicians is heralding their above “…new five-year contract that includes a 13.25% increase in salary and protects their guaranteed retirement benefits, with no increases to the cost of musician health benefits”, I’m wondering who’s gonna kiss the Subscribers’ asses that were impacted by this?

    I’M not happy, and now you want me to continue to contribute AND pay higher ticket fees? Are their consequences for the Musicians if donations and CSO ticket subscriptions slump?

  4. Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 1:35 pm by Andrew

    To all the salty subscribers who are upset about the Symphony Center events that were canceled during the strike: in the Chicago area, there are lots of unpaid community orchestras and regional orchestras that barely pay working musicians. Maybe attending their concerts would be more to your liking! The musicians’ “greed” won’t cut you off from your 437th performance of Beethoven whatever.

  5. Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 2:32 pm by Fondly Remembering Solti

    To Andrew: Will any of these community orchestras be booking the SF Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas?

    In case you have forgotten, the Chicago stop of Thomas’ farewell tour was canceled due to picketing by CSO musicians.

  6. Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 4:12 pm by Peter DG

    Where do we go from here?

    It’s unfortunate that there was no public dialogue with the CSO musicians. They should know how their listeners feel. And I would like to have had some understanding of what their thinking was in taking so long to settle this strike.

    The only extended discussions with CSO musicians posted online that I’ve seen were on the “slipped disk” website which has a lot of frivolous chatter, and on another web site I’m not about to add my comments to. The latter page is
    placed on a website of an organization dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. Google it. No idea how many other CSO musicians support this cause.

    So I’m conflicted as to whether I want to continue being a donor and subscriber. With the damage this strike has done to the CSO audience and to the psychology of the musicians I doubt the CSO will feel like a top US orchestra for the next few years. The synergy is lost. It will be years, if ever, for it to be regenerated.

    Where do we go from here? Frankly, for me the CSOA activity most attractive of support has been the Civic not the CSO, just as the Ryan Center is at the Lyric. There are other classical music organizations around Chicago. I will be rethinking whom to support.

    A fast way for the CSO musicians to regain my respect would be by appropriate words and actions. They could publicly apologize for the harm they have caused and justify why they did it. The action might be to finally terminate their association with the AFM/CFM and find another way to be represented in their contract dealings with the CSOA. It seems that financially and professionally the CFM has cost them dearly.

  7. Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 5:41 pm by Steve

    The contract that was finally agreed on by both parties is very similar to that “last, best and final” offer given by the CSOA a couple of weeks ago. Practically, the only thing was the higher salary increases in this new contract (but still doesn’t surpass LA and San Francisco), which can be explained by having the employer contribution to the new 401K defined contribution plan drop from 8% of the last, best, and final offer to 7.5% of this current contract.

    The union’s and musicians’ statements that this was a total “victory” are merely a way to save face; they conceded practically all they said they wanted to fight for (all the current musicians are still transitioning to the defined contribution plan, which is what the musicians were so adamant about…).

    Basically, this strike could have been resolved weeks ago, and I assume that it was based on the insistence of the union that really dragged on this conflict longer than it should have been…which really hurt the avid concertgoers, subscribers, patrons of the CSO (as well as the other performances featuring visiting orchestras and solo recitals).

    I hope the musicians realize what they have done and not put the institution through this again because I honestly think there has been serious damage done that could have been avoided altogether. They need to be reflective and honest with themselves and apologize to the CSO audiences for causing this chaotic mess, but I highly doubt that that will happen any time soon.

  8. Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 7:51 pm by Jeff

    Some of these comments are extraordinary. From suggesting that the 100+ musicians were manipulated by the union which would imply that they are not very bright or thoughtful on their own. Shame on you for suggesting that.

    Secondly, so sad that one of you proposed that the musicians deprived you of public dialogue. First of all, every day (but Easter) they were on public display outside the Hall, ready and willing to talk to the pubic. How do I know this? From being there and talking with many of them. Asking questions, learning what the issues were and are. And the musicians performed in non traditional venues (for them). You could have seen them and spoke with them at The Hideout, The Chicago Temple et alia. They were very public with their presence. If you chose not to speak with them please do not blame them. My email to Jeff Alexander went unanswered as did many others of my friends and fellow concert goers. So who was hiding?

    Also, if conflicting information came out about the strike: its causes and resolution why would one simply assume that the version from management was the “truth”. Does one always assume that the bosses are telling the truth and the workers are lying? Again, I turn to who is openly talking to people versus they who are hiding before I rank value conflicting versions.

    Lastly, for people who think that the musicians have broken some bond between them and the audience by fighting for their well being this is far more of a comment on the audience than the musicians. I don’t know what other people go to concerts, I only know why I do. Simple, to hear music. I support the musicians of the Chicago Symphony because of the calibre music they can produce. I thank them every time I hear them.

  9. Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 7:59 pm by Ex-CSO Fan

    I have to say I am disappointed that a new contract has been approved and the CSO musicians are back to work. The arrogance and ignorance the musicians displayed in this strike left a very bad taste in my mouth. I will no longer enjoy CSO concerts. I frankly was looking forward to a total replacement of the orchestra.

    Wrapped up in their supporter bubble, the musicians are oblivious to the negative comments posted outside their own websites or Facebook pages. They should apologize to the audiences affected by the mess created by them, but they will not, especially when they declared “victory.”

  10. Posted Apr 29, 2019 at 8:04 am by RD

    Jeff is completely right. I can’t believe how many people here are just blindly siding with management, claiming that they won’t go to concerts now or whatever. The CSO musicians were playing without a contract as of September 2018.

    It’s really sad to see that the anti-worker management message once again received so receptively.

    If anyone should be blamed, it’s management. The attitude that the CSO musicians are “lucky” to be making money doing what they love (an argument used all too often in the arts to elicit free labor) obscures the very real fact that it is a JOB. Yes, they love the music, but it is work. They don’t owe us anything–it’s their right to fight for what they deserve, and I’m glad they did it. 7 weeks is nothing in the end. In an era of constant cutbacks to the arts and when we have become all too accustomed to the constant stripping of worker protections, it’s nice to see labor actually stand up for itself.

    Good for the CSO musicians for fighting for what they deserve! Unions work–all of us should take heed from what the musicians have done.

  11. Posted Apr 29, 2019 at 11:04 am by Fondly Remembering Solti

    The final verdict as to whether this strike was worthwhile will come down to: what percentage of subscribers choose to renew, how many paying customers (not comps or school groups) are in the seats for future concerts, how donors (corporate and individual) respond, how ticket pricing is affected, etc.

    Don’t expect to hear about such consequences going forward. It is in the interest of both the musicians and management to obscure such considerations. i.e., to claim that all is fine. CSO’s balance sheet and the number of empty seats in Orchestra Hall will tell the true tale.

    Hard to see what the point was, since in the end, the musicians agreed to a phase-in of the defined contribution plan that management sought.

  12. Posted Apr 29, 2019 at 11:38 am by George Young

    Give me a break from the many indignant and resentful statements expressed here. I’ve been a CSO subscriber for over 51 years and largely supported the musicians’ position in regards to the work stoppage and negotiations. Now that there’s been a resolution, I’m happy to have just increased my annual contribution to the CSO when I renewed my subscription.

    This seems, all things considered, to have been a quite normal negotiation, given such a fundamental shift in retirement compensation having being acquired over fifty years as a previously hard won benefit. Like any other significant labor contract compromise, time is an inescapable factor across the fulcrum of bargaining, as both sides unavoidably need time to fully take scope of their own and the others’ positions. Seven weeks and seven cancelled subscription concerts is not going to turn out to have fundamentally broken anything. I’ll happily exchange the tickets for the concerts that I missed for some of the other equally satisfying programs available through the remainder of the season.

    You are going to continue to get what you pay for and can readily choose the performance quality you are willing to afford around here with the vast number of choices in ensembles. I play as an wholly uncompensated amateur musician in a local community orchestra. You are welcome to attend all of our concerts for free. We try our best, but believe me, the level of training, skill and musicianship dictates the difference in compensation.

  13. Posted Apr 29, 2019 at 2:59 pm by Maria

    I think both sides has had their piece. Management closed out the unsustainable DB plan and the musicians rallied for a salary increase. Both sides compromised and accepted the decision. We should really just leave it at that and continue our way to music making and music appreciation.

    Please tone down the rhetoric and the division with all this. CSO is one organization of musicians and management. We as audience members once again have access to great music.

  14. Posted Apr 29, 2019 at 8:06 pm by Gerry A

    I’m all for making nice too Maria. It’s done. We should have a Party.
    I just think there may be unanticipated consequences for what I am just going to keep calling Ill Will on the Subscriber/Donor side.

    I don’t know what the consequences are for the Musicians if we see subscriber/donor slump? Pressure on The Board & Deep Pockets yes, more calls for Us all to donate more, bet on it.

    But just like what this has been about, Money, when we get those calls it will still be about MONEY. THIS was about money. Like the final short strokes fighting on an asset you are buying or selling. Not standards. Money.

    Best Wishes to All.

    Thanks Lawrence for creating the space for this Dialogue. Appreciated.

  15. Posted Jun 15, 2019 at 8:58 am by 30+ year subscriber

    What about the collateral damage inflicted by the CSO musicians? The restaurant Tesori closed. The Thomas Club laid off its staff. None of these workers have guarantee raises or 12 weeks of paid vacation. The musicians were not financially damaged by the strike. These other workers were. But in the minds of the white shoe liberals supporting “labor” (the musicians), the lowly working man/woman doesn’t matter. I am appalled at the musicians’ arrogance and disregard for the welfare of those who are dependent on them. The proudly proclaimed “Free” concerts do not compensate for lost wages.

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