• Friday, Mar 22, 2019
  • Last Update : 08:06 am

Chicago Symphony Orchestra members go on strike

  • Published at 05:29 am March 13th, 2019
Chicago orchestra
Members of the renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra carry signs as they strike on Monday, March 11 in Chicago | AFP

The contract between the musicians and the leading 128-year-old orchestra's association expired at midnight

Members of the renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike Monday after 11 months of labor negotiations failed to reach an agreement.

The contract between the musicians and the leading 128-year-old orchestra's association expired at midnight.

A picket line formed early Monday in front of Chicago's Symphony Center. Musicians said they would march daily until a deal was reached.

The orchestra's leadership indicated that performance cancellations were possible, as the strike was expected to last at least until Friday, when the two sides are next set to meet. 

"We are firmly united today in our shared responsibility to ensure the future of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra," the orchestra's president Jeff Alexander told reporters in a telephone conference.

"The decision to strike was the union's choice and theirs alone."

The musicians say management is asking them to accept reduced salary and benefits despite increasing revenue from sales and donations. A major sticking point is the structure of the musicians' retirement compensation.

Members want to retain a guaranteed pension structure. Management wants to switch to retirement savings accounts commonplace in the private sector. 

The CSO's leadership has called the musicians' demands "unreasonable," while orchestra members warn that the board's plans would hurt their ability to attract and retain high-level players.


'Very, very disturbing'

"Our tickets sales are good, our contributions are very, very good," Steve Lester, a bassist who leads the musicians' negotiating team, told AFP. "And yet, they can't make this work. It's very, very disturbing."

Citing the orchestra's multimillion-dollar endowment, Lester said musicians were concerned that the orchestra would have trouble attracting top talent in the future if management's plans go forward.

The orchestra's association, however, emphasized that it still pays some of the highest salaries in the industry and is not far behind its chief rivals. The association was concerned over pension costs that have risen in recent years.

"We have an overarching concern with long-term sustainability. It's as simple as that," said Helen Zell, head of the orchestra's Board of Directors. 

In a public letter, the board called the musicians' demands "unreasonable and detrimental to a sustainable future for the (orchestra)."

Music director Riccardo Muti, a world-renowned conductor, has voiced support for the striking members. 

"I understand their needs and how they should be treated, and the fact that they are among the best musicians in the world," Muti said.

"I hope that the board will remember that theirs is not a job but a mission, and that tranquility and serenity will be given for the artists to do their work."

The strike follows a similar action at Chicago's Lyric Opera -- represented by the same union as the symphony members -- in October, when members of the premier arts institution walked out over cost-cutting efforts they said would reduce quality on stage.

That weeklong strike ended with musicians agreeing to downsize the orchestra by four players and management agreeing to a pay increase.