Chicago latest: Strike is over, musicians claim victory

Chicago latest: Strike is over, musicians claim victory


norman lebrecht

April 27, 2019

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.

Previously from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association:

CHICAGO— Two days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered to mediate the dispute and after a full day of meetings at City Hall, the Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians (CFM) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) have reached tentative agreement on the outlines of a proposed five year contract. If approved by all members of the orchestra and by the CSOA Board of Trustees, the proposed agreement, which is pending would end a seven-week strike – the longest in the CSO’s history.

Both parties are thankful to Mayor Emanuel and his staff for their assistance.



  • Max Raimi says:

    The orchestra demonstrated extraordinary courage, determination, and sense of community. The city of Chicago was magnificent in its support, from a number of prominent politicians to literally thousands of ordinary people. In my 35 years here, I have never been prouder to be a member of the Chicago Symphony.

    • Not.Dr.Who says:

      I read a CSO musicians comments on the socialist website – – disgusting. But some nice pictures of you.

      • fflambeau says:

        Thanks for the link. It’s a fascinating interview, much longer than in traditional media.

        One insight I really liked was the comment from one of the musicians that the boards funding classical music used to be more because the funders loved classical music, while now it is more because it looks good on their profile/resume.

        Here’s something else in that long, very informative interview:

        “JL: What is some of your favorite music that you have played?

        EG: One of my favorite composers would have to be Mahler. I love the lushness and the big sound he gets from the whole orchestra. I love being surrounded by the big sound of the orchestra. I have always liked being immersed in that sound rather than playing a solo. Playing in this section—I’m second flute—it really suits me. Any of the Mahler symphonies are my favorites. Also Debussy and Ravel—the French impressionists—are really fun to play as well.

        MR: I love Sibelius, Mahler. It depends who’s conducting. If you have a Nordic guy who understands Sibelius, that’s really cool. Or an old Viennese guy who has this pipeline into Schubert and Mahler. I guess, I have no favorites. There are a few composers I don’t particularly like, but a whole lot I love.”

        The original poster, like Trump, seems to think anything “socialist” is bad; that’s not necessarily so. Have a look at the interview and make up your own mind.

        • Not.Dr.Who says:

          a fabulous South American orchestra could not survive anything “socialist”

        • Russ says:

          Do you know the distinction between merely socialist and a Trotskyist? That organization the CSO musicians ran to was a Trotskyist organization!

      • Kelly says:

        You say dIsgusting? I say the comments are heartfelt and informative. It’s your tag here that is disgusting, Dr. Nobody.

    • Russ says:

      And the public support of the CSO has never been lower. Best of luck getting all of your customers back. For me, not worth the drive down anymore.

  • My Two Cents says:

    From what I understand, the new contract is pretty close to the one the association offered several weeks ago, that was overwhelmingly rejected by the musicians. The slight increase in pay over the last offer is more than half negated by the decrease in the funding amount into the defined contribution plan. And the musicians ultimately had to give up keeping the defined benefit plan open. It will be phased out and will not be available to any new members. I thought the big fight was over keeping the defined benefit pension plan open? There is some kind of a guaranteed pension amount for musicians who don’t want to take risks in investing on there own, but wasn’t that guarantee also included in the last offer? So in what way is this a victory for the musicians, and why did they accept this when they rejected the last offer? I must be missing some crucial fact. I guess I will have to wait for more details of the agreement to come out.

    • fflambeau says:

      Not correct. It was a compromise and like most compromises, both sides gave things up. The pay increase is significantly more than before and instead of musicians being forced into a 401k kind of retirement fund, there are better options with management and the orchestra set to come up with something even better in future.

      Overall, I see it as a win for the orchestra as Chicago’s leaders and the musicians finally began to realize, hey, we could lose the whole thing. It’s been a bonanza for the city. Probably Muti’s return also helped, and the fact that a non settlement would have meant cancelling some of his May engagements.

      • My Two Cents says:

        “The pay increase is significantly more than before”

        Yes, but they decreased the amount of funding to the defined contribution plans, so it erases more than half of the pay increase, making it not significant at all.

        “instead of the musicians being forced into a 401k kind of retirement fund, there are better options…”

        Not exactly. They are given the choice to put their 401k funded amount into a conservative mix, and if this mix does not generate enough income to match what they would gotten under the old pension plan, the association will add more funds to generate an annuity that does so. But this guarantee was already in part of the offer the association made in their last offer which the musicians turned down.

        “…management and the orchestra to come up with something even better in future”

        Here is the exact wording on this in the agreement:

        “CSOA and CSO representatives shall study options for providing retirement security for musicians hired after the freeze of the DB plan”

        This was definitely not part of the last association offer. My goodness, this is what the musicians are claiming victory on and why they voted unanimously to accept this proposal over the last one? After seven weeks on strike, this is the statement they had to wrench out of the management that, in the words of Mr Raimi, took “extraordinary courage and determination” for the orchestra to demonstrate? That was one big blunder on the side of the association for sure. If only they knew all the musicians were holding out was for them “to study options”, this could have ended a long time ago.

        But this one phrase seems to be what the musicians are using to claim that they won on the pension issue. Because for the life of me I cannot discover what other substantial thing they got they wouldn’t have gotten if they had accepted the association offer from three weeks previous.

  • fflambeau says:

    What’s up?

    This headline says the strike is over but if you read the whole “story” it says this: “If approved by all members of the orchestra and by the CSOA Board of Trustees, the proposed agreement, which is pending would end a seven-week strike – the longest in the CSO’s history.”

    Is this premature?

    It’s certainly a great deal for the orchestra and they would be wise to accept it (on its face). If it is a true settlement, I would think that the realization began to set in in the circles of high business in Chicago that lots of CSO customers would just look elsewhere and that losing their fine orchestra would hurt the city. That should have been pretty obvious earlier.

    • Bruce says:

      Normally the vote to end a strike is just a rubber-stamp vote confirming the negotiating committees’ recommendations; so no, most likely not premature.

  • fflambeau says:

    A good article on this from the Chicago Sun Times which indicates that the deal is “tentative” and needs an o.k. from the orchestra association (which has been part of the problem from the beginning). The name of the story underlines that: “CSO musicians ratify contract deal to end strike; management’s vote awaits”

    It also includes this: “Pressure had been mounting to land a deal ahead of an important series of subscription concerts helmed by acclaimed Music Director Riccardo Muti that is due to begin May 2.”

    So maybe Muti’s return did in fact play a role in this? It will be fascinating to dissect what happened and why if this is really a final agreement.

    If this is indeed the final settlement, it appears an overwhelming win for the orchestra members.

  • Jasper says:

    The account (albeit skimpy) of the settlement published in the Chicago Tribune paints a more nuanced picture of the terms of the retirement plan. Sort of a hybrid version of a defined benefit plan and a defined contribution plan.

    • My Two Cents says:

      This hybrid version was already on the table 3 weeks ago and the musicians had rejected it. So it does not explain why they accepted it this time.

  • Keith says:

    I hope Mr. Raimi didn’t injure his shoulder by patting himself so forcefully on the back. Thankfully it appears he’ll continue to enjoy excellent health insurance benefits.

    • Max Raimi says:

      No doubt the courage and determination I cited (have you ever been in the position of supporting a family with no income and no way of knowing when or if another paycheck is coming?) pale in comparison to the heroism “Keith” displays by putting nasty anonymous comments on a message board.

      • Bill says:

        Did someone force you to vote yes on the strike authorization? As I recall, the CSOA made you an offer, one which would have paid you all the weeks you were out on strike, and the paying customers could have enjoyed some music, too. That is the raison d’etre for an orchestra, is it not?

      • James says:

        Oh my! No paycheck for a couple months must be pretty bad when you have been making $100,000+/year for years previously. I can’t imagine how much money you have saved; probably enough to support several families while you’re on strike. You are acting as though you make $30,000/year.

  • Wolfgang says:

    Spoiled children, all of them.

    • Skip says:

      That’s reductive, not to mention unfair: They’re not children, and whether they’re “spoiled” or not is both in the eye of the beholder and besides the point. What is true is that they’re world-beating professionals who expect to be compensated accordingly.

      Of course, the money’s got to come from somewhere. If donors are willing to keep paying up, great.

      But will they?

      If I were an orchestra musician, my first priority would be aimed at maximizing the relevance of my profession to my community. Establish one’s utility to society, create value, and the money will follow.

      I don’t see that happening. I see the musicians focused on what they see to be their immediate self-interest (fair enough: we all do that to varying degrees) while failing to answer the big question–Why does the Chicago Symphony matter?–and neglecting to consider how the answer to that question has changed since the last century.

      So they’re bargaining like it’s 1999.

      And it’s not.

  • Stringfellow B. says:

    They get a salary increase and keep their retirement benefits? Really making sacrifices for the organization I see. Good luck with the financial stability of that, CSO!

  • Bemused says:

    You knew the moment they “declared victory” the musicians had caved on the pension. Sure enough.

  • fflambeau says:

    It’s interesting that the musicians of the CSO do not use as a benchmark or see their competition as coming from NYC or Philadelphia but from San Francisco and LA. I agree but would add Seattle to the mix:

    “Throughout the negotiations that have been underway since that date, the musicians have argued that their pay should be at least equal to that of orchestras in Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are the highest-paid in the country.

    Though the new contract will not achieve that goal, “Let’s put it this way — we are not falling further behind,” said CSO bassist Stephen Lester, chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee.

    “We understood that the fairly large gulf between those two orchestras and us wasn’t going to be made up in the term of one contract. But we were successful in changing the direction, the trend. In other words, we’re keeping pace now, and possibly even gaining a little.”


    • Bill says:

      Of course they don’t use the east coast orchestras as their benchmark, the west coast orchestras are paid better! And the substantial cost of living difference that accounts for at least part of that pay is conveniently disregarded.

  • CanuckPlayer says:

    Am I missing something here? The New York Times reported the orchestra will indeed get rid of its defined benefit plan and move to a defined contribution plan. New players will not have a guarantee that the new plan will equal the old benefits.

    Every orchestra not named Boston or San Francisco will try to do this same thing as soon as their contract negotiations start.

    Other than a notable raise which is a real win given the economic environment, I don’t know exactly what everyone is cheering about.

  • Skip says:

    It’s an odd thing, musicians going on strike against a non-profit enterprise.

    Think about it: It’s not as if that 13.25% increase in this settlement represents a fair share of the CSO projected profits, because the organization doesn’t make a dime.

    So, really, it was a strike against donors: Cough up more cash or else.

    Ok…or else what? Or else you’ll go into investment banking or some other more remunerative occupation?

    Now that the CSO has committed, on the donors’ behalf, to cough up the cash, what happens if those donors don’t go along? Then what?

    As the City of Chicago wobbles toward insolvency, as the State of Illinois bleeds residents, seeking to fill its pension chasm with tax increases that drive the most mobile (read, wealthy) residents out of state, it’ll be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Good news. If this orchestra is as good as their reputation (I have not heard them since Solti years), then any damage to their reputation will not be for long. I hope I get to hear them again soon in Europe.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Well, in the old days, you could hear that brass section in Europe, all the way from Chicago. Good luck finding the strings.

      • Old Man in the Midwest says:

        The string players were all excellent actors hired to be in a modern silent movie.

        They were necessary baggage to make it look like an orchestra.

      • Russ says:

        That brass section is what most people associate with the CSO and made them so popular. To each their own.

        • Brian says:

          The unfortunate reality is that the once-fabled brass section has never been the same since Herseth’s glory days. His prime was better than anything out there today, but even he was painful to watch and listen to before he finally retired. The same could be said about the former principal horn, and some members of the lower brass section are sadly nearing that point too. Sorry, but the truth hurts. And it makes those arguments about the CSO being “the world’s best” ring awfully hollow.

  • Acastos says:

    The CFM statement, while strictly accurate, deceitfully conceals the truly significant concession the musicians made.

    From the Chicago Tribune:

    “Regarding pension, the musicians objected to management’s proposal to shift from a traditional defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. The new contract makes that transition, freezing the musicians’ accrued funds in the defined benefit plan; the musicians will have two options on when to make the switch to the new plan and freeze the old one, said Alexander: July 1, 2020 or July 1, 2023.”

    So (1) The salary increase doesn’t actually bring parity with LA and San Francisco – which is what the musicians demanded; and (2) The change in the retirement plan was precisely what the musicians DIDN’T want.

    Since this outcome could have been achieved 7 weeks ago, the real losers of the strike are the “courageous” and “determined” musicians – as well, of course, as the audience.

  • My Two Cents says:

    “no increases to the cost of musician health benefits”

    LOL to CFM! The association never even attempted to increase costs even from the start of negotiations! That’s right. Pat yourselves on the back for this “victory”!

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    It seems that the musicians did all right on this one.

    The changes in the pension only effect new members in 2020. So all the older players are guaranteed their pension as was promised.

    The raises are good (and most players make more anyway) so the minimum will be more like $200K.

    The real questions are for the actuaries and the donors.

    Does the money the orchestra forfeited during the strike pay for some of the gains they achieved?

    And will donors support the increase and higher ticket prices this contract entails?

    My guess is that the board of directors have guaranteed the gap between earned revenue and costs.

    But will the audience return after having been burned?

    And no more free concerts I imagine. All of that was “goodwill” to the community but it will now stop. Who needs goodwill when you’re getting paid like the 1%?

  • anon says:

    The millennials in the orchestra learned a bitter and costly lesson: it ain’t your grandfather’s orchestra anymore. Next time the elders suggest going on strike, think twice before following them over the cliff.

    The older generations are stuck obsessively measuring their paychecks against LA and SF; instead, the younger generations ought to be measuring everything else, falling behind in pay is only symptomatic of deeper problems in programming and civic connection with the city and its donors.

    • David Rohde says:

      I think Anon makes a very good point, and it prompts my very first comment on the strike. No matter how much discussion there is here about donor funding of this or any other classical music organization, there is no substitute for putting fannies in the seats, and I don’t just mean papering the audience with school groups (of which I saw a great deal when I last saw the CSO at Symphony Center in December). As the CSO like all others works to get more younger working-age folks into the concert-going habit, what I fear is that the expressed attitude of the players toward the supposed horrors of defined contribution plans came across to the general public as some combination of elitist or fearful or just plain lacking in basic knowledge. It is just not that hard to come up with a basic, conservative design for a retirement portfolio and tens of millions of Americans are long used to it by now.

      The current players even get a form of a guarantee of their results, but the point is that of course this change away from defined benefit pensions had to be made. And together with the revelation of the salaries and the sense that public “support” for the strike came more from “official” labor-supporting sources rather than deep in the general public, I don’t know if the players did themselves much good in the long run by holding out this long. Perhaps the younger members of the orchestra know all this, as Anon perhaps is suggesting, particularly in his added remark about the civic connection in Chicago. We’ll see going forward.