Trombones on the Picket Line: Lyric Opera Orchestra on Strike For the First Time in 50 Years

Amelia Diehl

All 74 members of the Chicago Lyric Opera orchestra are out on strike. (Photo by Del Hall)

On Tues­day, the music stopped for the Lyric Opera of Chica­go just as the com­pa­ny began its 64th sea­son. Orches­tra mem­bers walked out on strike over a new pro­posed con­tract that would cut pay, reduce mem­ber­ship and per­for­mances, and can­cel radio broadcasts.

As a result of the strike, opera per­for­mances for the rest of the week have been can­celed. Yet the music hasn’t stopped entire­ly: brass musi­cians took to the pick­et line with their instru­ments on Tues­day after­noon, play­ing tunes while per­form­ers and sup­port­ers marched out­side the Civic Opera House in down­town Chica­go. Morale among the strik­ers has been tremen­dous,” says Lewis Kirk, who has played bas­soon in the orches­tra for 31 years.

We believe that this world-class opera com­pa­ny needs a world-class orches­tra,” Amy Hess, a vio­list, tells In These Times. The cuts that man­age­ment is demand­ing of us would for­ev­er dimin­ish the qual­i­ty of the orches­tra and there­fore of the opera com­pa­ny as a whole.”

The musi­cians are rep­re­sent­ed by the Chica­go Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians Local 10 – 208 union, which is advo­cat­ing to pre­serve ben­e­fits and work­ing con­di­tions, and to win salary increas­es that reflect the rise in the cost of living.

Accord­ing to a state­ment released by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians, of which Local 10 – 208 is a chap­ter, orches­tra play­ers have not seen their wages increase in spite of a major bud­get hike. While the Lyric Opera bud­get has increased from $60.4 mil­lion in 2012 to $84.5 mil­lion in 2017, the orchestra’s slice of the bud­get decreased from 14.6 per­cent to 11.9 per­cent over the same time peri­od. Mean­while, Lyric’s gen­er­al direc­tor, CEO and pres­i­dent Antho­ny Freud has seen his wages increase 18 per­cent from 2014 to 2017, and his cur­rent annu­al salary sits at $800,000. Accord­ing to a press release sent on Wednes­day from Lyric man­age­ment, the Lyric’s pro­posed con­tract would offer each musi­cian an aver­age annu­al wage of $82,500.

The orches­tra is con­cerned that their week­ly salaries have only increased an aver­age of less than 1 per­cent per year since 2011. Tak­ing into account infla­tion, wages have actu­al­ly decreased by 5.1 per­cent since that time. Though the Lyric is offer­ing a nom­i­nal wage increase, the con­tract would still result in an 8 per­cent pay cut per year, because the pre­vi­ous con­tract com­pen­sat­ed musi­cians for 24 weeks, accord­ing to the orchestra’s state­ment. The new con­tract would pay musi­cians for 22 weeks and decrease the num­ber of per­for­mances to 55, com­pared to about 85 a decade ago.

Freud tells In These Times that he is very sad” and dis­ap­point­ed” about the strike. He explained that the bud­get increas­es reflect the addi­tion of pro­gram­ming, such as more com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment and a musi­cal at the end of the season.

The length of the opera sea­son has to short­en,” to reflect a soft­ness of demand”, Freud says, adding that the Lyric wants to avoid pay­ing musi­cians for weeks they are not actu­al­ly performing.

The new con­tract would also remove five posi­tions from the 74-mem­ber orches­tra, which musi­cians say would com­pro­mise their per­for­mances. The Lyric would remove posi­tions through attri­tion rather than imme­di­ate lay­offs. Once you lose a posi­tion it’s hard to get it back, so we’re fight­ing to keep those posi­tions,” says Kirk. The orches­tra cut two mem­bers in 2009 because of con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, accord­ing to Hess. If they keep cut­ting the num­ber of musi­cians it won’t be a world-class orches­tra any­more,” she says.

The Lyric has already can­celed its radio broad­cast pro­gram, which the opera used to adver­tise its per­for­mances world­wide through radio and online stream­ing. Musi­cians claim this is a blow to the orchestra’s inter­na­tion­al exposure.

The pre­vi­ous con­tract expired on June 30, and the union had been nego­ti­at­ing the new con­tract over the course of 25 meet­ings since March, accord­ing to William Cer­no­ta, who has played cel­lo in the orches­tra for 36 years. After their usu­al sum­mer break, the orches­tra began rehearsals at the end of September.

The Lyric Opera orches­tra per­formed open­ing night on Octo­ber 6, as a cour­tesy to our patrons and our donors, and we didn’t want to deprive them of that expe­ri­ence,” says Kath­leen Brauer, a vio­lin­ist who has played with the orches­tra for over 20 years.

Lyric Opera recent­ly set­tled a mul­ti-year con­tract with the Inter­na­tion­al Alliance of The­atri­cal Stage Employ­ees (which includes Stage­hands Local 2, Wardrobe Local 769, Hair and Make-Up Local 476 and Trea­sur­ers and Tick­et Sell­ers Local 750), while the Amer­i­can Guild of Musi­cal Artists (which rep­re­sents cho­rus singers, actors, dancers and stage man­agers) is wait­ing for mem­bers to rat­i­fy a new contract. 

This is with­out a doubt the worst nego­ti­a­tion I’ve ever par­tic­i­pat­ed in or wit­nessed from the side­lines,” says Cer­no­ta, who has chaired the mem­ber­ship com­mit­tee for over 20 years.

The last time orches­tra musi­cians par­tic­i­pat­ed in a walk out of this mag­ni­tude was dur­ing a dark sea­son” in 1967 – 68 in which a con­tract dis­pute pre­vent­ed them from play­ing, accord­ing to Hess. Cer­no­ta added that in 1997, the orches­tra was pre­vent­ed from play­ing for about a week,” due to anoth­er dis­pute, and the orches­tra threat­ened to strike in 2015, but reached an agree­ment with­in an hour.

Hours after musi­cians walked off the job, Lyric Opera respond­ed over Twit­ter call­ing the strike unnec­es­sary and harm­ful”. Man­age­ment cit­ed dimin­ish­ing audi­ence num­bers and declin­ing rev­enue to explain their cuts to pay and staff. 

Freud recent­ly told the Chica­go Tri­bune, We, as respon­si­ble man­agers of a busi­ness need to match sup­ply to demand. It’s a nation­al trend that opera per­for­mances are hard­er and more expen­sive to sell than they ever have been. We’re sched­ul­ing the max­i­mum num­ber of opera per­for­mances we believe we can sell.”

The musi­cians, mean­while, claim the management’s eco­nom­ic out­look is self-defeating.

The orches­tra is actu­al­ly doing very well, and we saw no rea­son that this would be a time that they would be com­ing to us for cuts,” says Hess. Tick­et sales have grown by almost $1 mil­lion from 2012 to 2018, and the house reg­u­lar­ly sells 84 per­cent of its tick­ets, which Hess claims is phe­nom­e­nal” for an arts organization.

The strike has received an out­pour­ing of sup­port, with endorse­ments from labor rights groups like Chicago’s Fight for 15 chap­ter and the Chica­go Teach­ers Union.

The Chica­go orches­tra strike comes amid a recent wave of local and nation­al labor unrest. In Sep­tem­ber, work­ers at 25 Chica­go hotels went on strike, and most of them have now won favor­able con­tracts. This sum­mer, Ama­zon work­ers in Europe dis­rupt­ed oper­a­tions for up to three days while over the spring, teach­ers in West Vir­ginia, Ari­zona and oth­er states walked off the job.

As of Wednes­day, upcom­ing Lyric Opera per­for­mances had been can­celed, includ­ing Puccini’s La Bohème,” on Thurs­day, Friday’s Choir! Choir! Choir!” and Saturday’s open­ing night for Mozart’s Idome­neo”

We’ve made clear that we’re ready to attend to the table at any point. I very much hope nego­ti­a­tions resume soon,” Freud tells In These Times. The orches­tra musi­cians have said they are wait­ing for Lyric Opera man­age­ment to re-open negotiations.

It will take as long it takes” to reach a con­tract, says Hess, not­ing that the orches­tra feels very uni­fied in our resolve.”

Cor­rec­tion: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this sto­ry mis­stat­ed that the Lyric Opera had recent­ly set­tled a con­tract with the Amer­i­can Guild of Musi­cal Artists, rather than the Inter­na­tion­al Alliance of The­atri­cal Stage Employ­ees. That error has been cor­rect­ed here. 

Amelia Diehl was a fall 2018 intern for In These Times. Her pieces are pub­lished or forth­com­ing in Jacobin, Geez and Audia Music News.
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