The Chicago Symphony Orchestra recently concluded negotiations that had extended beyond the expiration of the former collective bargaining agreement. A settlement was reached and ratified on November 6, narrowly averting a strike.
We had expected this negotiation to be difficult. For three years the orchestra had endured meetings at which William Strong, the chairman of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, painted gloomy pictures of the Association’s finances. After years of financial and marketing mismanagement that left many trustees angry and audiences drifting away, a new Association president, Deborah Card, was hired last season. Daniel Barenboim’s tenure as music director was publicly and awkwardly ended without a successor having been chosen. The media had continually questioned the validity of classical music and symphony orchestras and had portrayed musicians as spoiled, lazy, and greedy.
The first negotiating session began with yet another speech by the Association chairman and continued with the presentation of management proposals to reduce our benefits by $2.75 million per year for each of three years. Management’s non-economic proposals sought to turn the clock back 40 years, with over 100 items designed to gut our contract’s provisions on working conditions, union and committee representation, and job security.
We knew that we could challenge the trustee’s financial assumptions. The chairman’s presentations were riddled with inaccuracies and over-generalizations. With the help of financial analyst Ron Bauers we acquired a more accurate understanding of the Association’s situation. Reading articles by ICSOM’s own Leonard Leibowitz, Richard Levine, and Henry Peyrebrune, we learned about the myth of the “structural deficit.” We realized that, while the Association did have short-term problems with working capital and cash flow, it also had a very strong balance sheet showing revenues that more than cover musician expenses. Although ticket sales have slowly declined, revenue remains strong; at the same time, musician costs account for less than one third of the budget.
Over the last decade, especially since the expensive renovation of Orchestra Hall, trustees and management have become less interested in presenting concerts than in undertaking special projects and in advancing social and political agendas. Activities essential to our artistic growth and audience development have been reduced or eliminated. We now do little or no media work. We play fewer youth concerts. Our in-school ensemble program, which used to reach 20,000 students and seniors each year, has been severely cut back, as has our chamber music series. The Association’s “business model” has set new and unusual goals for a symphony orchestra. One goal is to modify or re-create an orchestral institution so that it not only gives symphony concerts but does many more things, some musical (presenting non-classical music) and some not (establishing experimental educational programs not involving musicians). These activities were taking place under the Chicago Symphony Orchestra name and were diluting our activities and image, creating audience ambivalence and apathy, and engendering huge increases in staff, budgets, and expenses.
When the easy money of the 1990s disappeared and the trustees realized that the Association could not afford these projects, cutbacks were inevitable. Rather than eliminate the failing activities and initiatives selectively, they decided to cut all programs equally and to force the musicians to shoulder a disproportionate share of the pain. This strategy was reflected in the proposals they put forth in negotiations. We had already seen our non-guaranteed income shrink significantly, resulting in lowered compensation of around 10% in each of the last three years. Under the new proposals, there would be a further reduction in benefits of approximately $25,000 for each musician for each of the next three years, as well as a permanent reduction in the size of the orchestra. This while maintaining a staff that remains larger than the orchestra!
To justify its financial demands, management used a ten-year projection that predicted huge budget shortfalls. Based loosely on a model developed by the Mellon Foundation, this tool was useful in describing the dangers of poor management but was otherwise meaningless. Other economic facts which came to light revealed that there were, in anticipation of these negotiations, several actions coordinated by management and trustees designed to make our financial situation appear worse than it actually was.
These included lowering the goal to be raised for the annual fund, lowering ticket prices, failing to contribute anything to the pension fund over a seven-year period (necessitating huge payments into the fund in the next several years), and lowering the draw on the endowment to the minimum of 5%. All of these actions had a huge effect on revenues and expenses, giving the budget for this year and next especially large deficits. The purpose of this strategy was to make the situation look as bad as possible.
Management has also attempted to undermine our union representation, to divide the orchestra, and to control all information and discussion in the media and the community about the orchestra and classical music. The new Association president started meeting with members of the orchestra privately, ostensibly seeking their input while promoting her own ideas. The Association leadership worked in concert with boards of other orchestras that were negotiating contracts, and proposals put to these orchestras were strikingly similar in language and substance. The degree of communication was unprecedented. There was a unified attempt to push most of the major orchestras down by reducing benefits and weakening working conditions.
In response to this situation, we were fortunate to have an experienced negotiating team, supremely capable legal counsel, and the support of Local 10-208, the AFM, and ICSOM. Most important was the overwhelming support of the orchestra. We had lively orchestra meetings during which many questions were asked and answered. There was considerable email discussion in which our negotiations were examined and critiqued. All of this brought us together in great solidarity.
We were willing to look at the Association’s problems and work to help solve them, but we also sought commitment from the trustees that the CSO would remain world-class. We realized that we would need to help the Association dig itself out of the hole into which they put themselves. Even though we had only a handful of negotiating proposals, we were willing to be flexible as long as our basic working conditions and fundamental benefit structure remained intact.
However, in this negotiation the trustees sought to impose unusually severe measures and seemed to be inviting a strike. Negotiations took place with minimal progress. Because a great gulf still existed between the Association and the Union after five months of negotiation, a mediator was engaged in October. Retired federal judge Abner Mikva proved to be both determined and understanding. He was extremely adept at grasping complex issues and very skillful in fashioning mutually acceptable compromises. Without his efforts we would probably be walking a picket line right now.
We realized that a strike might have serious long-term effects, including a catastrophic impact on future revenues. A strike might have changed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for decades, even permanently. We strongly believed that a work stoppage was a last resort, one to be avoided—but not at all costs. We were ready to strike if necessary, and picket signs were printed and picket captains appointed in early November. Our view has always been that a strike can be avoided only if both sides believe it can occur, and that one is apt to occur when one side erroneously believes the other will back down. We believe that both sides must have been aware of the enormity of the consequences of a strike, and this contributed in no small measure to reaching a settlement.
In the end, we accepted a back-loaded wage package: the first year has a wage freeze, but our scale at the end of the three-year term will be competitive with our peer orchestras. Our pension remains at $63,000, but management has agreed to guarantee a $70,000 retirement benefit and to make that figure the basis for determining future pensions. To preserve the quality of our medical insurance, we agreed to contribute a small amount toward premiums. Finally, the Association may leave up to five positions vacated by attrition unfilled, but, at the end of the contract, our orchestra size remains officially at 111. We were also successful in keeping out of our collective bargaining agreement any media provisions that violate AFM contracts or agreements.
It would be nice to say that all is well and that we expect the future to be harmonious and successful. That is unfortunately not the case. There is no question that the Association wishes to continue to change the orchestra in ways that will make our artistic mission more difficult and less relevant. The orchestra is suffering because of misguided beliefs, anti-musician attitudes, and poor management.
We call upon our management and trustees to listen to musicians, to work with the musicians through their elected representatives, and to give up transparent efforts to divide and conquer the orchestra. We call upon them to listen to audiences about the sort of programming concertgoers want. We call upon them to stop spending time, money, and emotional resources trying to dismantle a great cultural establishment and instead to assume a positive attitude and to promote and expand our orchestra’s presence in society aggressively. Of course this would cost money, but “controlling costs” by smearing the reputation of musicians, by collusion among organizations, and by openly doubting the future of classical music can only be damaging to all of us. Ultimately, our entire society will suffer. Across the nation, symphony orchestras have never had better musicians, better playing, and better concerts. Can the same be said for organizational leadership?
Stephen Lester, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra negotiating team, is chairman of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Members Committee and an ICSOM Governing Board member-at-large. Other members of the negotiating team were Roger Cline, Donald Koss, Samuel Magad, and David Sanders. Local 10-208 was represented by President Ed Ward, Tom Beranek, Gary Matts, Louise Thorson, and union attorney Michael C. Greenfield.