How the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Won Higher Wages By Playing For Free

Josh Wolf

Over the course of their 7-week strike, the CSO played free concerts across Chicago. (Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

While wav­ing signs and walk­ing a pick­et-line is stan­dard prac­tice for strik­ing work­ers, per­form­ing world-class music isn’t. But for the Chica­go Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra — one of the most renowned orches­tras in the world — it was only nat­ur­al to host free con­certs dur­ing their longest strike ever. 

We — the Chica­go Sym­pho­ny — we are here to give this city music. We can’t exist with­out an audi­ence. We want to keep giv­ing back to the city, and play­ing con­certs, and reach­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” Cyn­thia Yeh, prin­ci­pal per­cus­sion­ist and mem­ber of the musi­cians’ nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee, told In These Times. Play­ing con­certs is what we all do.”

On May 6 at the Audi­to­ri­um The­atre, where their first con­certs were held 128 years ago, the CSO played their fifth and final free pub­lic con­cert of their series From the Heart of the Orches­tra,” after end­ing their sev­en-week strike by reach­ing an agree­ment with man­age­ment on April 27.

These con­certs are our way of say­ing thank you to the peo­ple of Chica­go — to all of you,” Steve Lester said while intro­duc­ing the con­cert. Lester has played bass with the CSO for 41 years, and serves as the nego­ti­at­ing chair for the musi­cians. Sup­port for the musi­cians effort has real­ly helped us through a very dif­fi­cult time,” said Lester. That sup­port has remind­ed us of what we always knew — the Chica­go Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra belongs to no one enti­ty, it belongs to every­one. We are Chicago’s symphony.”

In an inter­view, Lester said that that the free pub­lic con­certs were key” to reach­ing an agree­ment, and con­tributed to pub­lic sup­port for the musicians.

The strike, which began on March 11, saw musi­cians demand­ing high­er wages and pro­tec­tions for their pen­sions, among oth­er issues. Soon after, CSO musi­cians orga­nized free shows in venues through­out Chica­go — church­es, high schools, music shops and union halls — play­ing in eco­nom­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly diverse neigh­bor­hoods. The point that we make is that we belong to the city,” said Lester. We belong to every­one in Chica­go. We don’t belong to just one small group of peo­ple who are very wealthy. And that res­onates well in a place like Chicago.”

Build­ing sup­port among the pub­lic and fel­low work­ers can be crit­i­cal for any suc­cess­ful labor strug­gle, includ­ing sym­pho­ny musi­cians. With base salaries at $159,016 at the begin­ning of their strike, their pay was high­er than many of the oth­er work­ers who have gone out on strike in recent years. It’s hard to have sym­pa­thy for some­one who makes that salary,” said Peter Wahrhaftig, who plays tuba in the San Fran­cis­co Bal­let Orches­tra, and has played in the CSO. It’s not like teach­ers, who are just scrap­ing by. It’s a pub­lic rela­tions challenge.”

Unlike work­ers in indus­tries like man­u­fac­tur­ing or food-ser­vice, orches­tras are in the uncom­mon sit­u­a­tion of being able to give away the fruits of their labor while they’re on strike by play­ing free con­certs. Is it a strike tac­tic? Prob­a­bly so. Is it grat­i­fy­ing for the musi­cians? Incred­i­bly so. And is it some­thing that the audi­ence enjoys hear­ing? Very much so,” said Wahrhaftig. It’s a way of con­nect­ing the musi­cians to their audi­ence as well, rather than just as an insti­tu­tion.” Wahrhaftig said that it’s com­mon for orches­tras to play free con­certs while on strike.

After host­ing one of the free CSO con­certs at his venue on April 12, the Hide­out co-own­er Tim Tuten talked about how the sym­pho­ny is more than just a bour­geois insti­tu­tion. Obvi­ous­ly, the sym­pho­ny is some­thing that is seen by the elites — the upper class — and this is some­thing that we’re con­scious of at the Hide­out,” said Tuten. But the sym­pho­ny is made up of musi­cians, and those musi­cians are mem­bers of a union. They’re work­ing people.”

Although CSO salaries are much high­er than the medi­an house­hold income, sym­pho­ny musi­cians are extreme­ly spe­cial­ized work­ers, and the job mar­ket is incred­i­bly com­pet­i­tive. To get a job in any orches­tra now is an absolute crap­shoot,” said Wahrhaftig. Audi­tions are blind audi­tions. There’ll be any­where between 50 and 150 peo­ple at any sin­gle audi­tion. And some instru­ments, such as mine (the tuba), there might be one audi­tion every two or three years, nationally.”

Along with the com­pet­i­tive­ness of sym­pho­ny jobs, musi­cians point out the pop­u­lar­i­ty and suc­cess of the CSO: the orga­ni­za­tion has won 62 Gram­mys, and last year the CSO played more con­certs than any oth­er orches­tra in the Unit­ed States. CSO music direc­tor, Ric­car­do Muti, is also crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed in the music world. The Chica­go Sym­pho­ny, when Muti’s con­duct­ing, it’s real­ly one of the extra­or­di­nary orches­tras in the world. It real­ly is,” said Wahrhaftig.

The strike broke out after dis­putes over a salary increase and the Chica­go Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra Association’s (CSOA) insis­tence on chang­ing the musi­cians’ pen­sion from a guar­an­teed defined-ben­e­fit plan to a defined-con­tri­bu­tion plan sim­i­lar to a 401k. Musi­cians argued for a defined-ben­e­fit pen­sion, which would pro­vide greater retire­ment secu­ri­ty for the musi­cians, and place the finan­cial risk of guar­an­tee­ing the musi­cians’ pen­sions on the CSOA.

In press releas­es, the CSOA claimed that the orches­tra was wor­ried about the sus­tain­abil­i­ty and future of the institution’s bud­get. CSOA Pres­i­dent Jeff Alexan­der said in an inter­view with In These Times that in order to sus­tain the guar­an­teed direct-ben­e­fit plan, we felt as though the finan­cial struc­ture of the insti­tu­tion would be in great jeop­ardy, and we didn’t want to see that happen.”

In the new agree­ment rat­i­fied April 27, cur­rent musi­cians main­tain a guar­an­teed floor for their pen­sions, which the CSOA will pro­vide, in case of unpre­dictable mar­ket fac­tors, but new musi­cians join­ing the orches­tra as of July 2020 will not be pro­vid­ed with a guar­an­teed-ben­e­fit plan.

For their part, musi­cians say they don’t want a two-tier retire­ment plan, where some musi­cians have guar­an­teed pen­sions while oth­ers do not. It pits the new mem­bers of the orches­tra against the old­er mem­bers of the orches­tra,” said Lester.

Cur­rent­ly, there are plans for a study group to study options for pro­vid­ing retire­ment secu­ri­ty for musi­cians hired after the freeze of the DB plan,” accord­ing to the agree­ment, but Lester is wor­ried that the study group may not be able to come to an agree­ment. Believe me, that’s a con­cern,” said Lester.

This has been such a dif­fi­cult issue. I think, also, frankly, we’re look­ing to see that there are sig­nif­i­cant changes in the man­age­ment and the board with­in the next year, so that by the time this has to be final­ly fig­ured out, we may have more rea­son­able peo­ple to talk to,” said Lester.

The musi­cians also secured a salary increase bring­ing their base pay to $181,272, though they still lag behind their coun­ter­parts at peer sym­phonies in Los Ange­les and San Francisco.

The study group is set to report its find­ings on retire­ment options for future hires by April 27, 2020, and as of now man­age­ment and the musi­cians dis­agree as to the inter­pre­ta­tion of the study group clause, we are attempt­ing to clar­i­fy it now,” Lester told In These Times.

While the agree­ment was a com­pro­mise,” accord­ing to Lester, the CSO appears poised to stand togeth­er in future con­certs. At the Audi­to­ri­um The­atre, the CSO opened their con­cert with the Star Span­gled Ban­ner fol­lowed by Sol­i­dar­i­ty For­ev­er, which was set to the tune of the Bat­tle Hymn of The Repub­lic, songs that Lester said were suit­able for this great occasion.”

Let this con­cert rep­re­sent a new begin­ning: that this cul­tur­al jew­el will shine for­ev­er for the peo­ple of Chica­go and the world,” said Lester.

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