CSO Musicians Head to Picket Lines over Pension Issue

On Sunday, March 10, musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) called for a strike citing discord with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) on issues regarding pensions and salary.

Late, Sunday, the CSO published an announcement that read, “despite 11 months of negotiations, which included the services of federal mediators, expert third-party actuaries, and labor and benefit attorneys, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) musicians -- represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians (CFM) -- and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) did not reach agreement on a new contract.” The previous contract expired at 11:59 p.m. on March 10.

At the close of negotiations last week, the union announced plans for the strike that is currently interrupting the orchestra’s 2018-2019 season. 

“We are disappointed by the union’s choice to disrupt the CSO season now underway, and we are available to return to negotiations when they are ready,” said CSO Association President Jeff Alexander. “We have worked tirelessly to be responsive to the musicians’ many proposals during negotiations and have responded with a package that provides exceptional benefits, offers salary increases, improves working conditions and protects their retirement benefits.

“We value the musicians, and our commitment to the artistic quality of the Orchestra is unwavering,” he said, adding that other CSOA unionized employees and administrative staff have made concessions over the last several years to help ensure a long future of the CSO.”

The CSOA announced that they believe the current strike to be “unreasonable and detrimental to a sustainable future for the CSO.”

The orchestra maintains that CSO musicians have one of the most lucrative salary and benefit contracts in the industry. “Even though the Association has experienced annual operating deficits for several years, it offered increased wages, improved working conditions, and a generous retirement package,” the statement read.

Under the new contract offer, CSO musicians would receive an increase minimum annual salary in the final year to more than $167,000 annually. The CSOA is offering retention of current medical, dental and life insurance coverage with no increase in weekly contributions toward the cost of the premiums, and no reduction in the plans' features, which is a bone of contention to the musician’s union.

Said Stepehn Lester, CSO bassist and chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, the pension package is still lagging behind current standards. He indicated also that the pension benefit is the most important investment the symphony could make in the orchestra’s future.

The CSOA insists the organization is committed to reaching an agreement with the musicians’ union beneficial for “all involved,” including the City of Chicago. ““The CSOA values and respects the musicians, who are among the finest in the world and have been a cultural treasure for the Chicago community for more than 128 years.  As such, we look forward to resolution and continuation of an already outstanding concert season,” said Alexander.

As a result of the current impasse, CSO concerts and ancillary presentations have been cancelled currently through March 16.

Perhaps by then an accord can be reached. But without one, it looks as if Chicago audiences will be collateral damage in the dispute.

Additional information related to the current negotiations is available at cso.org/negotiations.

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CSO musicians voted Sunday, March 10, to strike over a salary and pension dispute amid contract negotiations.