Chicago musicians: The strike is still on

Just in, from the Chicago Federation of Musicians:

Responding to the distorted information sent by CSO President Jeff Alexander to Musicians of the Orchestra and to the press, the Negotiating Committee sent the following to their members. There are two negotiating sessions tomorrow, before and after the 3:00 pm concert. If no agreement is reached the strike will commence at midnight and twelve-hour picket lines will begin Monday morning, March 11, at 8 am

To: Members of the Orchestra

From: The Negotiating Committee

Re: Last night’s email

Dear Members,

We are sure you have seen Jeff Alexander’s email last night detailing the Association’s version of their contract proposals. While there are some encouraging aspects to the Association’s proposal they do not come close to addressing our fundamental concerns. What remains clear is that the Association is not offering wages that will keep us competitive with other major orchestras. The percentage increase they propose 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 propose to eliminate our guaranteed retirement benefit. The core difference between our plan and their proposal is that our plan has a guaranteed benefit funded by the Association. 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. Jeff also fails to mention the other concessions the Association continues to demand, such as reducing sabbatical weeks, reducing substitute pay, and eliminating the $3,000 annual individual pension supplement.

We are grateful to all of you that have reached out in support of the committee. This proves that the attempt to divide the orchestra is failing. The Association’s attempt to subvert the negotiation process is unprecedented in the 50 year history of our collective bargaining.

We appreciate the wonderful support you have given us over this entire process. We are here to serve you and understand our obligation to ensure the future of the orchestra.

In solidarity,

Your negotiating committee


More details of the CSOA offer here.

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  • If Don Muti ask me, I can bring some “friends” from Napoles, in order to talk with necessary people asking due things. Usually they provide in less than 24 hours. I’m just saying…

  • I am a 32-year duration 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 his or her 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 (page 13 of the PDF document, especially the 7th and 8th paragraphs of the American Tailwind section):

    • The classic reference on the disadvantages connected with management fees can be found in Burton Malkiel’s “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.”

    • A defined benefit pension pot can also be placed in “an S & P Index 500 fund”. You have confused who invests with how it is invested and are “either a knave or a fool”.

      The deep question is whether the risk about the returns should either be borne by the firm or the worker. It seems firms are only too happy to place the risk with the worker (and reduce their contributions into the bargain).

  • Hmmmm. Mixed feelings about this response. The remuneration packages for the top USA orchestras have seemed, for many years, to have been extremely generous. We, in the UK, have had to face reality some time ago. I am not sure how many UK orchestras still have a defined benefit pension scheme (which the musicians of Chicago still seem to enjoy). I know that my own closed to existing employees and new members some 12-13 years ago. This, while I recognize that there was no other option but to close, represented a very significant reduction in remuneration package.
    Thank you for attempting to give a balanced report on this issue.

  • I actually want to see a strike. I want to see where this goes, how it plays out in the real world, who is really bluffing and who’s got the real leverage.

  • The way the top American orchestras negotiate labor contracts is just so unnecessarily nasty and self destructive.

    I mean, every four years or so, the union puts out these angry over-the-top statements like management is gutting them alive and drinking their blood and selling their children.

    Management puts out the same boilerplate statements that employees are sucking them dry, leaving nothing for the future.

    They inevitable patch up, congratulate themselves, sign a 4 year contract, then repeat the process the next time around.

    There are only so many times they can cry wolf and expect the public to keep tuning in. The general public just doesn’t care, already they don’t go to your concerts, why would they care if you’re making $150,000 instead of $160,000?

    A pox on both their houses, and play some more Star Wars scores.

    • Classical music isn’t for general consumption just like physics isn’t. True, most people don’t care what their salaries are (or shouldn’t). However, fans do care if the live orchestral music stops, which is why a possible strike is important. You must be really young to be so clueless about negotiation. Havn’t you even bought a car? Maybe you look at the sticker price and just put it on your card. Lol

  • Yes…anything but a defined benefit pension, with a guaranteed payment amount, is snake oil indeed. Don’t let them take away your DB pension, Chicago!

  • I mean, come on, this is all just so much baloney. They are paid plenty well. If they want world-class salary, then they need to perform and function as a world-class orchestra.

    Can’t pin down a principal trumpet? Where’s a principal horn? The whole business of principal oboe was downright irresponsible–all utter failures of “world-class” audition procedures/systems.

    All this to say nothing of the miserable (oftentimes elderly) quote unquote musicianship coming out of the percussion, low brass, clarinet, harp, bass, cello, viola and violin sections. There’s a reason the Senior PGA pays prizes at lower rates than the PGA (the same reason no one watches or cares). . .

    I’d vote to fully eliminate all overscale payments to musician “leaders” until the ensemble and its operation is brought up to snuff.

    Chen making $550k, Sharp making $360k, Herbert making $340k, Williamson making $365k. . . Why not hold them proportionally responsible for the financial circumstance(s)?

    And to even slightly indicate elements of social or economic justice as part of contract necessity/urgency is utter hogwash (not to mention insulting). These players are more akin to star athletes than an organized force of victimized labor fighting for their rights, though laughably less successful at the bargaining table.

    • spot on comment here. some of these principal players are paid way too much for rather mediocre and dull playing (Chen comes into mind here…his technique is fine but often lacks expressive qualities)

    • Not sure I agree with all of your critiques, but the overscale payments to principal players are a huge boondoggle nonetheless.

      • Management doesn’t pay them to be generous. They pay the minimum they think they can and keep them in a negotiated contract.

  • I would say the biggest issue here is the proposed switch from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. That just transfers the risk from the orchestra to the musicians, who I’m sure are sophisticated investors but probably don’t have access to the same investment expertise as the CSO. I can see how they would go to the mat on that one. I am less sympathetic about the salary itself; Chicago is a much cheaper place to live than Boston, New York, or SF (or even Seattle, I imagine).

    Some of the items are kind of cute and I assume easily traded away.

    And I also don’t like the hysterics and allegations of bad faith every time a new contract is being negotiated.

    Pity about that second harp.

    • While I would prefer to have a defined benefit plan (who wouldn’t?), I bet whoever is managing the pension program and endowment is underperforming many low fee index funds — because people trying to outperform the market take too many risks or are too defense, and they charge you a large fee for their service. This has been the case with a number of university endowments, including Harvard, and a growing number of people believe the money managers should be fired and all of the money put in index funds.

      I’d be interested to see how orchestra pension programs and endowments perform relative to the S&P and some of the most popular index funds.

      Pro tip: use a roboadvisor.

      • Why would the musicians care about how much the fund is charged: the managers at the CSO are responsible for any short-fall and for paying the service charges.

  • I know many have applauded Muti for taking a stance. I won’t call it a mistake, but I feel it’s best for all parties involved – including Muti’s – that the conductor steer clear of the whole ordeal.

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