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CSO strike ends with 5-year contract accord; musicians accept phased change in pensions

Submitted by on Apr 27, 2019 – 10:54 am

Steve Lester, chairman of the union negotiating committee, presented charts showing the CSO’s compensation relative to other orchestras at a press conference April 24. (Nancy Malitz photos)

Report: With accord ratified by musicians and CSO Association, concerts set to resume with music director Riccardo Muti on May 2.
By Nancy Malitz and Lawrence B. Johnson

The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra voted April 27 to approve a new five-year contract that compromises on pensions and projects wage increases totaling 13.25 percent (14 percent compounded). The agreement was reached April 26, the day Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped into a contentious dispute between the musicians and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association that had led to the strike March 11.

Under the new agreement, the pension plan will be frozen after the 2022-23 season and transition thereafter to a model that shifts the future investment burden to the musicians themselves. Unanimous approval by the musicians came hours before the Association board of trustees also voted to approve the contract.

Members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra were among supporters who joined the picketing CSO musicians. (Nancy Malitz)

In a statement, Steve Lester, CSO bassist and head of the musicians’ negotiating committee, said: “After about a year of negotiations, we are victorious in our efforts by protecting and maintaining our secure retirement and gaining lost ground on our annual salaries. The musicians voted overwhelmingly for a fair and competitive compensation and retirement benefit plan that will ensure the excellence and sustainability of one of the finest orchestras in the world.”

The annual minimum salary will rise to $181,272 in the 2022-23 season, with additions for seniority and for titled positions. Any new musician hired prior to July 1, 2020, will be covered by the current pension plan, which guarantees a specific retirement benefit to the musicians. After that date, new hires will be placed in the new plan, which guarantees employer  contributions but switches responsibility for the pension fund management to the individual musicians  – the 401(K) model. For CSO musicians who will not be fully vested in the old pension plan by July 1, 2023, some flexibility has been built in, but their old plan would ultimately be frozen and supplemented by the 401(K),

With a unanimous “yes” vote from the musicians, and approval by the CSOA board later in the day, the settlement comes just ahead of music director Riccardo Muti’s return to Chicago to conduct two weeks of concerts at Orchestra Hall beginning May 2. Muti’s Rome-themed program May 2-7 features mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato – for ticket information, go here. The ensuing Muti concerts, May 9-11, include Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with soloist Mitsuko Uchida and two Stravinsky ballets, “The Firebird” and “Apollon musagète” – for ticket information, go here.

But the first event at Symphony Center will be the duo recital by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Evgeny Kissin on Wednesday, May 1, in a program of classical and romantic favorites including Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, Brahms’ Second Violin Sonata, and Mozart’s 23rd Violin Sonata, K. 306. For ticket information, go here.

The musicians and the Association, having negotiated for more than a year, were at an impasse and not talking when Emanuel entered the fray with an offer of “the services of my office.” Underlining the orchestra’s eminence and its value to the city, the mayor couched his offer in a statement:  “For more than 125 years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been a crown jewel within Chicago’s rich cultural landscape. None of us want to see that jewel tarnished. After speaking with both parties, it appears that we should be able to achieve an end to this seven-week strike.”

Appearing on the street with the CSO strikers early in March, music director Riccardo Muti spoke on behalf of the musicians. (Malitz)

When Muti was last in Chicago, shortly after the strike began March 11, he made a clear statement in support of the musicians and even joined them on the street outside Orchestra Hall.

Since the strike began, the musicians had received some $200,000 in financial support from fellow artists in leading orchestras around the country. And in a letter dated April 11, Benoit Machuel, general secretary of the International Federation of Musicians, wrote to CSOA president Jeff Alexander from Paris urging the Association not to jeopardize the global stature of the Chicago Symphony.

All concerts at Symphony Center had been canceled from mid-March to the end of April.

The board’s previous offer included a change in projected salary increases to 12 percent over five years from 5 percent over three years. The musicians objected that the five-year increments would be “hardly keeping up with inflation” and would not make up “for losses over the past five years since the last contract” and would put the CSO “further behind the salary offerings of San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

But the real bone of contention remained pensions. According to a statement by the musicians, what proved to be the Association’s penultimate proposal would freeze the pension plan at its current level, “thereby prohibiting new hires from joining and denying nearly two-thirds of the orchestra currently in the pension plan any guarantee to increase their retirement benefit, even if they don’t retire for another 20 years. New employees would get no guaranteed retirement benefit.”

At that time, Jeff Alexander, the CSOA president, said, ““Throughout these negotiations we have continued to listen to the concerns of our musicians and have directly responded with proposals that provide an exceptional, comprehensive compensation package. With the final offer on (April 7), we have proposed a long-term agreement that would allow the parties to repair their working relationship, bring stability to the organization, support the musicians in a transition to a new retirement benefit and grow the annual base salary by 12 percent, retaining a contract that remains at the top of our industry.”

Then Emanuel stepped in, new proposals were considered, and an agreement was reached.

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