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Chicago Symphony Strike Settled

April 27, 2019

Some 100 musicians of the Chicago Symphony voted to ratify an agreement Saturday morning, ending their nearly seven-week-long strike.

On Friday evening, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who entered the negotiations just two days before the settlement, made the initial announcement:

I am pleased to announce that, after convening both parties at City Hall for a successful negotiating session, the management and the musicians have reached an agreement in principle to bring the music back to Symphony Center.

The Symphony is an integral part of Chicago’s rich cultural fabric, but its economic impact extends beyond the musicians and management to the stagehands, ushers, restaurant servers, and hotel workers whose livelihoods depend on a thriving Symphony.”

Neither side would immediately discuss details of the settlement, but it’s safe to presume that a solution has been found for the central issue in the strike — management’s plan to move musicians from a pension to a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan — and probably in the musicians’ favor. During the strike, orchestra negotiators were unambiguous about their insistence on not diluting retirement benefits.

On Saturday, after ratification, the musicians released a statement, indicating at least some of the facts of the settlement:

The musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) voted unanimously today to ratify a new five-year contract that includes a 13.25 percent 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.”

Before Emanuel’s intervention in the negotiations, improvement in the conflict seemed far from the horizon. A day after talks moved to City Hall and a day before the announcement of the agreement, negotiators for the musicians announced:

“We appreciate Mayor Emanuel’s efforts to bring the CSO Musicians and Association together to resolve the seven-week old strike. We want to avoid jeopardizing any more concerts and disappointing the CSO’s patrons and fans,” the musicians said when entering talks in Emanuel’s office.

Music Director Riccardo Muti, who has emphatically sided with the musicians, is scheduled to conduct the orchestra May 2–7, and CSO’s Ravinia season is scheduled to begin July 12. Muti’s contract has been extended through 2022.

CSO musicians have gone on strike previously six times in 38 years, but not for this long. Reasons for the intensity of this labor dispute, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, include:

The pension. It came up during the 1991 and 2012 negotiations, but those resolutions hinged more on salary and changes to health benefits. Why is the pension the 2019 strike’s deal breaker?

It’s about “sustainability” and the future financial health of the organization, according to CSOA President Jeff Alexander and Board Chair Helen Zell. Yet converting the defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution setup would cost the organization more in the short run.

Under the new defined-contribution plan, CSOA would contribute the equivalent of 8 percent of the musicians’ base salary annually, at a cost of at least $1.4 million a year. That’s in addition to its current pension-fund obligation, $35 million over eight years.”

CSO’s operating budget — stated as $73.7 million in Fiscal 2018 — has a $900,000 deficit, even with record ticket sales for the past several years. Management is most concerned about preserving the approximately $300 million endowment, of which several drawbacks have been made in recent year. (In comparison, S.F. Symphony’s last audited report of total endowment was $315 million.)

Even before comment from management, bassist Steve Lester, chair of the musicians negotiating committee, claimed victory: “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,” and thanked Mayor Emanuel for his involvement.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].