Chicago Symphony Strike Looms as Musicians Vote to Authorize Walkout

Chicago Symphony Strike Looms as Musicians Vote to Authorize Walkout

Photo courtesy of Chicago Symphony Orchestra Musicians

Updated 2/15/19 at 9:30 AM: Updated to include statements from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.

by Abigail Trabue

After 11 months of bargaining for a new labor agreement, the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have voted to authorize a strike on March 10 if ongoing negotiations fail to achieve an agreement.

At a mid-day press conference at Orchestra Hall, representatives said they hoped not to strike, but would, if necessary, “to protect the health of both individual musicians and the orchestra itself,” citing a decade of stagnating compensation and benefits, along with increased scheduling and deteriorating working conditions.

“We want a fair and competitive contract that will ensure the excellence and sustainability of one of the world’s great orchestras for years to come,” said Stephen Lester, symphony bassist, and chair of the negotiating committee.

“With the CSO maintaining stable revenues, ticket sales, and donations, management’s attempt to squeeze the orchestra by ending our defined benefit pension plan, raising health care costs, and stagnating wages is both an insult to each of us and a danger to the reputation and viability of the institution itself,” says Gina DiBello, violinist.

Percussionist Cynthia Yeh adds: “Management is trying to squeeze us to pay their bond debt for a rehab of Symphony Center costing more than $100 million. We know that when people refer to the CSO they mean the musicians, our Maestro Riccardo Muti, and the music – not the building, however lovely it is. And it is this, the music and musicians, the heart of the CSO, that we are willing to strike to protect.”

“The overwhelming vote to strike was driven by management’s insistence on reducing benefits and offering inadequate compensation,” added Lester.

For their part, management—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association—points to the fact that they are not asking for any concessions or reductions, and have offered a package that increases the compensation for what is one of the highest paid orchestras in the country—third, behind the San Fransisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The organization says that CSO musicians enjoy a minimum salary of $159,016 with an average salary of around $185,000, the most guaranteed paid time off of any orchestra in the U.S. (12 weeks per year, with additional time off each summer), the lowest per-week rehearsal and concert service requirements, and more available sabbatical time than any other U.S. orchestra.

The CSOA’s statement also says that the company has been experiencing annual operating deficits for several years. Still, it stopped short of declaring the current retirement plan safe from reductions, asserting only that it “will continue to offer a generous retirement package.”

Negotiations have resumed for a new three-year contract. The CSO labor contract with the Chicago Federation of Musicians expired September 17, and was extended to March 10 in order to facilitate discussions and further explore the retirement issue.

If no agreement is reached by the deadline, the Orchestra’s 100 Chicago musicians intend to stop working.

About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue