So who’s winning the Chicago strike?

So who’s winning the Chicago strike?


norman lebrecht

April 02, 2019

In the first week, everything seemed to be going the musicians’ way after they walked out in a dispute over pensions. Their music director Riccardo Muti (pictured) showed his solidarity, as did the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.

Second week, they were still ahead, with free concerts for the deprived public and solid support across the music community.

Then talks were called off and a freeze set in. The two sides have not faced each other in a fortnight. The board is cancelling concerts week by week. The musicians have toned down their rhetoric, but there’s no-one listening on the other side.

This board tactic will rebound unless talks resume soon. The public tends to blame whoever is not talking. At the moment, that’s the CSOA. They’re losing this unless they come back to the table.



  • lori says:

    We are all very sad here in Chicago. Last night the Musicians played a lovely and poignant program of Mozart and Beethoven. They want to be back onstage, doing what they love.

    • Larry Dankel says:

      It seems that more than being back onstage, doing what they love, they want to secure their increasingly archaic form of pension, no matter how unsustainable for the future institution.

  • Larry says:

    You’re assuming that the “average” Chicagoan is sympathetic to the musicians demand about getting a different kind of pension. Of course the music lovers are distraught but they are hardly the entire “public.”

    • Mkay says:

      Then you are not a true Chicagoan. Jeff Alexander is a moob and Helen Zell of Sam Zell almost destroyed the Chicago Cubs, took away pensions at the Tribune and LA Times, is called the Grave Dancer and is the reason your rent is so high. He likes pricing people out of the market and loves kicking renters to the curb. The Symphony knows this and Helen Zell is a real life witch who started studying piano and low and behold is playing for Yo Yo Ma at fundraisers. Give me a break. Rich people don’t want taxes because they want to buy their way into organizations and lord over them. They give money because it’s a tax break. Oh, so charitable. Please dude…

      • Kelly says:

        Oh but who is really interested in the truth? Seems like most folks here want to criticize those who are willing to fight to maintain their well earned American dream. Mkay is absolutely correct. Major donors should never be allowed to buy influence with their money. I’m sure there are incredibly qualified Chicagoans who aren’t billionaires, who are more than worthy of chairing the board of trustees

    • Peter Borich says:

      The musicians are not demanding a “different kind of pension.” They are demanding that their pension system in place for the past 50 years not be changed.

      • Gregory DeMarco says:

        Yes, fundamentally a pension that affords a secure retirement. This is something all Americans should have but has been removed and replaced by risky personal 401k stock and bond investing…fostered by Wall Street. It will no doubt crash precisely when needed.

    • Bruce says:

      Maybe CSO audiences are who he meant by “the public” in this context.

      Not everybody goes to movies or baseball games, either.

  • Don says:

    I’m confused… They are musicians, right? Artists. This contract negotiation has now turned into a fight because they aren’t being offered “the best” salary and benefits (from their perspective). They are trying to argue that having a defined contribution plan, instead of a defined pension, is insulting. So, to protest this injustice, the musicians have decided to strike (without pay!) and instead play FREE concerts all over Chicago? Which is it? Are they in it for the love and passion of music-making? Or did they become musicians for the money? I suppose both motivations can be there simultaneously. But, I find it rather disingenuous to argue that you deserve and need more money, and then you go out and do your job for free! Instead, why not just accept a very good and reasonable offer from your employer and get back to work?

    • Bruce says:

      Who says you can’t love what you do, expect to be well compensated for it, and yet do it for free now and then? Medical and legal professionals do it all the time. The old “you must do it either for love OR money” is a false dichotomy. According to that way of thinking, nobody who loves what they do should be paid, and nobody who is paid should love what they do. Teachers should work for free unless they hate it; doctors should be paid unless they love it.

      Mozart’s letters are full of talk about money. Which was it for him?

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Management 1
    Musicians 0

    Musicians have lost touch with reality.

  • Are refunds issued if a concert is cancelled?

    Of course tickets are always sold with a “NO REFUNDS” disclaimer, but… what is happening in this case?

    • Chuck says:

      The CSO Patron Services and box office has their act together on handling this (as usual, they are always competent and a pleasure to interact with). This is the crux of the email I received for each cancelled concert:

      For your canceled concert, you may do one of the following:

      Exchange your tickets into the same or similar seating section for other concerts in the current season, for no additional charge.
      Return your tickets and put the money on your account, to be used for future concert purchases.
      Donate the return of your tickets to the association and receive a tax donation receipt.
      Receive a refund, including the ticket price and any single ticket fees, for the canceled concert.
      If you do not contact Patron Services, your tickets will be returned and the money put on your account, until you have the opportunity to contact us.

      Options to exchange or return your tickets:

      Complete our online form or email mentioning your patron ID, concert date, and request.
      Call 312-294-3000 between 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
      Chat with us at between 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
      Visit the Box Office between 12 p.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

    • Sara says:

      All tickets are refunded through the CSO box office.

  • guest says:

    Judging by the fact that the reactions on this blog (a blog you would think would be very sympathetic to the musicians) has been very critical of the musicians actions, indicates that they really have much less support than they might have expected. If the reactions are largely negative on this blog, the public at-large must have an even more negative perception of the musicians.

    • CSO fan says:

      The situation is similar to the major sports leagues, where rabid fans can quickly turn against their heroes in the event of a work stoppage. Of course, there is no live music withou the musicians, just as there are no games without the athletes. The thin veneer of support covers those who, for a variety of reasons, loathe those they depend on. These ‘fair weather’ fans are like incels, who believe they are owed gratification on their own terms and, when it is denied them, react negatively.

      • Larry Dankel says:

        Wow! How hip! Introducing the term “incels” in support of your argument (such as it is). Next time, try to invoke “intersectionality” and we’ll all be impressed.

  • Chicago musician says:

    I would like to know your source on this information.

  • anon says:

    Let’s not mistake opportunistic politicians who show up for the camera for anything deeper than that. It’s free political advertisement.

    As for the “public”, what public?

    Surely the musicians must realize by now that the Board intends to wait them out, at least over the summer (Ravinia is not the CSOA’s bailiwick, so an ongoing strike then will not be their problem), so we’re talking 5 more months to go before the Board even has to ponder about next season.

    (And will the musicians risk alienating Ravinia, which had already lost James Levine, now it risks losing the CSO and the second part of their Bernstein centennial, and Ravinia had already greatly reduced the classical music lineup, so if it leads Ravinia to rethink classical music programming, maybe just keeping the star pianists (Lang Lang remains a big draw)…)

  • David Taylor says:

    This is not about winning. A house divided against itself cannot stand! We . . the orchestra, board and management are all in the same family. When it degenerates into a war of egos and power struggles everyone loses. The CSO is a great institution and has been for years. We WILL get beyond this and continue to create great music for all concerned.

  • Ben McDonald says:

    I support the musicians of the CSO. For all of the Nights I enjoyed. Listening the CSO.

  • Elise says:

    The Musicians of the CSO are undermining their own cause if they continue to perform free concerts for the public, for which they are not getting paid. They are devaluing their own artistry and the value of classical music to society. If they do not win this battle then it will be bad for all musicians in Chicago and around the world. But, for God’s sake- stop playing free concerts!!!! This is not about how much they love to play. That’s a given for any serious highly – ranked professional in any field. They are demeaning theirbown work and the work of all the other Chicago musicians by doing these free concerts. Who will go to any concerts now unless they are free? Recorded music is already free but live concerts still hild a special “aura”. What will happen to the musicians in Chicago when private funding, government funding and everything dries up? And to top it all off, the general public won’t want to buy concert tickets- even when they can afford them. Plenty of people plunk down $15 to see a movie and add in drinks and popcorn and candy and it equals the cost of a basic CSO symphony center concert ticket. But the CSO is not always filling their hall. And that’s a big problem. Too much music being given away for free and musicians are just trying to grasp for any performing opportunties they can. It smacks of desperation. They will lose this battle unless they make the public miss them, raise up their value as professional musicians- and make the CSO administration look mercenary and wrongful.

    • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

      I agree. This PR strategy makes little sense.

      They (the CSO musicians), at the very least, should be charging funds or asking for donations that can be used by the musicians that are most in need or put into a newly opened vehicle for their own pensions.

      By giving away their “product” they devalue what it is they do.

      But, the people they are performing for do not pay the bills at Orchestra Hall. So this strategy does nothing in terms of moving the ball beyond the line of scrimmage and getting to a resolution.

      But by charging money, they may find out that few people will pay and that they also need front office help to market concerts, publish programs, process credit cards, hire conductors, prepare the stage, etc.

      Hmmm, perhaps the musicians actually need management.

      Imagine that!

  • anon says:

    The CSO musicians are sucking the oxygen/life out of other classical musicians playing in Chicago, depriving them of work and pay, either because they are forced to cancel their appearances at Orchestra Hall, or because they have to compete against free concerts given by the striking musicians.

    Shame. Selfish.

    • Chicago Musician and CSO Supporter says:

      I perform frequently in smaller ensembles and orchestras in Chicago and the surrounding area and I can tell you that the musician and arts community here is extremely supportive of the CSO musicians. I assure you their free concerts are not detracting from other performances, nor are they they depriving us of work/pay/audience. Shame on you for chosing the path of ignorance over that of understanding and knowledge.

  • Chicago Musician and CSO Supporter says:

    How many of these commentors have actually gone to the picket lines, or one of the free concerts the musicians have put on?

    What would you do if you couldn’t be paid for a month, sit around and do nothing or give back to your community in the best way you can? These concerts truly are a gift to Chicago. Yes, they make the musicians more visible, but they also include a wider circle of audience than what patronizes orchestra hall. If management knew what was good for them, they would schedule more of these community concerts during the regular season.

    As for the pension it is a matter of principal. When each of these musicians were hired, they were promised a secure retirement. The musicians are not being greedy money-grabbers (if they truly cared so much about money they wouldn’t have gone on strike for this long – not being paid sucks). They are fighting not just for their own futures, but the future of every young musician who joins the CSO for life.

    Please before you make assumptions and false judgements, do some research and actually be present in the situation. It’s easy to be misinformed and to assume, it’s more difficult to put in some effort and really care.

    • NYMike says:

      “They are fighting not just for their own futures, but the future of every young musician who joins the CSO for life.” And secondarily for every other orchestra that still has a defined benefit pension.

  • Jon says:

    I have a close family friend who plays in the CSO. I am actually shocked that they want their salaries to be matched with NY and LA, which are all a lot more expensive than living in Chicago.

    They are top tier players but I personally think they should do away with the tenure system and sign 5 or 10 year contracts with the musicians. There are hundreds of musicians (like my significant other) that are perhaps just as good if not better but may not get a chance at playing with the CSO and make less than 60k a year. Tryouts are insane, depending on instrument, there are only perhaps 1 spot open per every other year, or less.

    It is a bit sad but in today’s day and age, you are only paid what you are actually “worth.” Doctors and lawyers are routinely tracked on revenue brought in, even basketball players or movie stars are paid by the revenue they can generate. It isn’t different with musicians, musicians are essentially entertainers. They provide an entertainment service.

    • NYMike says:

      “I have a close family friend who plays in the CSO. I am actually shocked that they want their salaries to be matched with NY and LA, which are all a lot more expensive than living in Chicago.” Perhaps you should talk to your “close family friend” and learn the facts you lack. CSO musicians’ basic wages are higher than musicians’ in NY while currently being just under musicians’ in LA and SF. And I’d quit whining about your “significant other’s” lower income – just tell him/her to practice how to win auditions @ major orchestras just like current members have had to do.

      • Jon says:

        A minor mistatement on salary facts doesn’t mean that they should justify being paid like Sf and la. Perhaps you should check the cost of living. The difference between nyc la or Sf vs Chicago are more than just a few percent.

        Personal attacks doesn’t justify that the tenure system may not be the most efficient system. You never disputed the number of people trying out for seats and the number of seats available. Some of the older players may or may not be better than the younger players. We will never actually know the answer.

      • Chicago Musician and CSO Supporter says:

        Absolutely right. Not to mention the fact the fact that getting rid of tenure and hiring musicians for 5-10 years would be terrible for everyone. With that logic all musicians age 40-50 would be unemployed? And there would be no continuity in the ensemble.

        • Jon says:

          I respectfully disagree. Some musicians in their 40s-50s are just as good if not better than younger musicians in their 20s and 30s.

          Signing 10 year contracts is a balance between giving them a reward for winning the insane audition process, but also encourages them to improve their craft and brings in a bit more competition while also giving younger musicians a real shot at a job at a high wage.

          The tenure system provides little incentive or motivation for great players to further improve their talents. While I can say some people are self motivated, there may be a portion of individuals who are not. Anyways just my opinion.

          • Anon says:

            The majority of musicians in their 50s would not win an audition over someone in their 20s or 30s. There may be a few exceptions yes, but for almost everyone, they are at audition winning peak before they hit 50.

            I also personally know many many professional orchestral musicians who work incredibly hard to maintain and advance their craft. Tenure is not a crutch that leads to laziness. It is a well deserved right for someone at the very top of their field who has worked incredibly hard and continues to care about being the best musician they can be. I don’t know what you do for a living but would you think it fair for you to work your whole life to get the very best job in your field, only to have it last 10 years then have no job security for the rest of your life?

            It’s ok to have opinions but again, it’s better for them to be informed.

          • Jon says:

            I do not dispute that they work very hard but at the same time, many accountants, bankers, lawyers, and most other fields also work very hard as well. There are no safety nets for the majority of people, including people in professional sports.

            Why is it fair that a 30 year old doesn’t have a chance to play in the CSO because for their instrument there are only perhaps 1-2 openings every 2-3 years. It is not that they are not good enough.

  • Sharon says:

    Unfortunately even US federal workers no longer have defined pensions apart from social security and even most workers of large firms are entirely dependent on 401ks, those “wonderful” instruments that are entirely dependent on the vissitudes of the economy. Would this be tolerated in the UK or Europe?
    Defined pensions are antiques in the US but the fact that that is so is a disgrace. Even more important to many people than their current salary is to provide some financial security to those they love once they can no longer support those people. Why is this considered selfish? If it isunrealistic, then maybe we need a social movement, with strikes perhaps being one strategy of it, to change this.

    • Kelly says:

      It’s a breath of fresh air these days when someone actually looks beneath the surface to find the truth. The American working class has been spiraling downward since the early 1980s. The norm has become the satisfaction of the billionaires at the expense of everyone else. Sharon is spot on!!