ICSOM has reported on the basic elements of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contract settlement, including wage increases of 13.25% over five years, no increase in healthcare costs to musicians, and the conversion of our pension to a hybrid type of defined contribution plan with an indexed, increasing, guaranteed benefit for the next 20 years. We must thank each of the 34 orchestras of ICSOM and OCSM that sent support totaling over $230,000 to the musicians of the CSO!
The purpose of this article is to describe the nature of the strike and how it concluded, including some of the tactics used by our employer, as well as what the musicians did to counter those tactics.
These were very difficult negotiations, not because management (the Chicago Symphony Association) used an especially clever or resourceful attorney, but because their approach was to refuse to negotiate meaningfully on important matters, and very quickly it became a “scorched earth” strategy. In our view, they clearly had two goals: to end a guaranteed retirement benefit for musicians, and to put the compensation and benefit status for the CSO musicians significantly lower than our peers. And they were willing to cancel the rest of the season to achieve their dubious goals. Their attorney, Marilyn Pearson, known for her role as United Airlines’s labor attorney when it eliminated the pensions of pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics in the early 2000’s, had a simple approach: for the purposes of appearing to negotiate, engage the minor issues, but refuse to make any significant compromise on important issues. They were looking for a strike.
Our negotiations had been going on since April 2018, with the contract extended from September 17, 2018, to the new deadline of March 10, 2019. Most of the musicians saw this coming, and we were reasonably prepared. The combination of a weak manager and anti-union and ideologically motivated board leadership made for a dangerous situation.
When the Association started ad hominem attacks on our negotiating committee, we were not surprised. When the Association went directly to the press with their distortions and disinformation, we were not surprised. When we went on strike and the Association cut off our health insurance, and then brought in armed guards to “protect” the hall, again, we were not surprised. These were all classic anti-union, strike-busting tactics of intimidation used by employers for over 150 years. One of the Association’s tactics was to attempt to exploit the members of our orchestra who were especially vulnerable because of health or economic issues, to try to sow dissent among the members. It didn’t work; the Association’s “last, best and final offer” was rejected overwhelmingly.
For our preparation, we contacted a leading labor law firm and retained the services of an experienced labor attorney, Robert Bloch. His firm has an ERISA (pension) attorney, Bill Kinney, who was also extremely helpful to us. Our Local president, Terry Jares, was helpful in organizing and maintaining contacts with the unions that the Association has contracts with. Despite the Association’s efforts to intimidate members of other unions, such as IATSE—eliminating benefits and enacting punitive work schedules—the hall was shut down. Thanks to the courage of our stage manager, Chris Lewis, no event was held in Orchestra Hall for seven weeks.
We retained the services of an experienced communications firm, whose president, Marilyn Katz, has contacts everywhere. In our messages to the public, we took the high road, always articulating why this orchestra needed the contract provisions we were bargaining for. We went to great pains to explain our positions, even using Association charts to illustrate our points. Our public message was consistent and effective. There were six rallies on the sidewalk in front of Orchestra Hall. Music Director Riccardo Muti spoke at the first rally in support of the musicians, which drew international attention. We are very grateful for the support of the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony who picketed with us at one of those rallies. We received overwhelming support from donors, subscribers, other unions, general public, government officials, artists and performers everywhere. We put on five orchestral and twelve chamber concerts, all over Chicago, free of charge, for large and extremely appreciative crowds. We demonstrated we were Chicago’s orchestra. We worked with visiting students whose scheduled concerts had been canceled. All of these efforts paid dividends. The Association’s response was minimal, except to hold two staged, poorly attended “town hall” meetings.
During the strike, we constantly kept in touch with our members not only on the picket line, which was maintained for 46 days, from 8 am to 8 pm, but also in weekly meetings. These meetings were extremely important. Everyone got a chance to voice their opinions, ask questions, express their fears. The support of our local, providing the meeting hall, with snacks and beverages, was greatly appreciated. At these meetings we carefully explained, in great detail, the Association’s proposals, using their own charts. The meetings were long, averaging over two hours in length, but were crucial to our solidarity. Because we spent a lot of time together, listening to each other, this process brought the orchestra closer together.
Even before the strike was called, we had developed a number of “back channel” strategies to attempt to find a middle ground. These included contacts with influential people in Chicago, most of which we cannot describe here, but one contact, with the Office of the Mayor of Chicago finally paid dividends. We believe that the enormous public pressure to resolve this conflict motivated Mayor Rahm Emanuel to intervene and use his authority (and his excellent staff) to mediate a resolution. His efforts, conducted with respect and sensitivity, all in the space of one day, proved successful, and music has now returned to the stage of Orchestra Hall.
In the end, the incredible strength and unity of our musicians and the great outpouring of public support, coupled with an effective and positive communications strategy, which ultimately got our mayor involved, proved successful.
The really depressing question remains, why would the fifteen executive committee members along with the Board Chair Helen Zell and President Jeff Alexander threaten the existence of the orchestra for an ideological goal? What was their logic? There is no financial crisis at the Association. This represents the nightmare of orchestral life: unsure leadership, fueled by anti-musician, anti-union agendas that ignore the realities of how our orchestra works and why it is successful. For years before, and again during negotiations, we tried to explain to the executive committee how an orchestra works; apparently they did not want to listen. With a deep knowledge of the trustees, we know that there are many who sincerely hope to move the organization forward, who appreciate the 128 years of history that is shown in the work of the musicians. The future of this orchestra depends on the willingness of everyone to listen, to understand each other, to understand the past, and to anticipate the future. In an arts organization no one has the right to impose their views, no matter how much money they give; it must be governed collaboratively.
Note: the author is a bassist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the chair of the orchestra committee.