Photo: Todd Rosenberg
by Jason Epperson
After nearly a year of contract negotiations, the 100 musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians) are on strike. A Sunday afternoon concert was followed by an evening of negotiations that concluded at 9:30 pm with no agreement.
At the heart of the conflict is management’s attempts to restructure the guaranteed pension package. “We have been clear from the beginning that we will not accept a contract that diminishes the well-being of members or the imperils the future of the orchestra,” says Steve Lester, bassist, and chair of the musician’s negotiating committee.
Percussionist Cynthia Yeh said that “the core difference between our plan and their proposal is that our plan keeps the guaranteed retirement benefit funded by the Association that has been the hallmark of the Orchestra’s benefits package (and those of other leading orchestras) for over 50 years. The Board of Trustees’ proposal strips the membership of that guaranteed benefit and shifts the investment risk to the individual member.”
Helen Zell, Chair of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, the non-profit that manages the orchestra, says that the change to the retirement plan is necessary for the long-term health of the organization. “As Board members, we are responsible for the financial well-being of the Association that governs the orchestra, not only in the present but well into the future so that Chicago has a symphony for future generations,” she said. “It is for these reasons that we believe we must secure both the musicians’ future and that of the Association’s by updating our pension structure and agreeing on a complete compensation package that is sustainable. It would be irresponsible for the Board to continue to authorize a pension program that jeopardizes the Orchestra’s future.”
The CSO labor contract which expired September 17, 2018, was extended to March 10 in order to facilitate discussions and to further explore the retirement problem. On Feb. 14, the Musicians voted to authorize a strike if no agreement was reached by the end of March 10. Beginning at 8 am on Monday morning, picket lines will run for 12 hours a day.