Chicago Symphony Orchestra Strike is Over | WBEZ
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Chicago Symphony Orchestra Strike is Over

Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians will resume performances at Symphony Center after a seven-week strike. On Saturday, they voted unanimously to ratify a five-year contract. The CSO Board of Trustees also voted to approve the contract Saturday evening.

“We are victorious in our efforts by protecting and maintaining our secure retirement and gaining lost ground on our annual salaries,” bassist and negotiating committee chair Steve Lester said.

The contract includes a 13.25 percent salary increase and no increase to health benefits, according to a statement from the musicians. Salaries will go up between 2 and 3.5% in each year of the contract, reaching an annual minimum base salary of $181,272 in the final year, according to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, the non-profit that manages the orchestra. By 2022, the base salary will be up 14% from where it is currently.

The musicians also thanked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who brought both sides to City Hall Friday to come to an agreement. In a statement released Saturday, the mayor called the contract a “great deal for the future of one of our city’s greatest cultural institutions.”

Helen Zell, chair of the CSOA’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement that the board looks forward to restarting concerts this week.

“This new agreement reflects the excellence of the orchestra and ensures that the musicians receive the outstanding compensation they deserve, while securing their and the CSOA’s long-term financial sustainability through the retirement plan transition,” Zell said in the statement, referring to a change in retirement benefits for the musicians.

A major point of contention between the Chicago Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra players, and CSOA was the musicians’ pension plan. The association’s sought to change from a defined benefit plan, like a pension, to a defined contribution plan, like a 401(k)

Lester had said a defined contribution plan would deter young talent from joining the CSO because their financial future wouldn’t be as stable as some of the older members of the orchestra.

In the end, the contract calls for a phased transition to a defined contribution plan beginning in 2020, with an annual employer contribution valued at 7.5% of base salary plus additional payments based on each musician’s age and years of service, according to the CSOA statement. All new hires as of July 1, 2020 will go into the defined contribution plan, the CSOA said.

The CSO musician said in a statement that “the new agreement preserves guaranteed minimum retirement benefits for current musicians and commits the parties to study options for providing retirement security for new hires.”

The more than 100-member orchestra went on strike on March 10 after contract negotiations broke down. Everyone from conductor Riccardo Muti to Chicago mayoral candidates stood in support with the musicians as they held their picket signs in front of Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue.

Muti, however, did not walk the picket line with the musicians. “I’m not against the board, the trustees, the donors. I just would like that they understand and listen more carefully to the needs of the musicians,” Muti said. “The entire world — musical world — is listening to what happens in Chicago.”

According to their salary charts, CSO musicians are the third-highest paid among five leading orchestras in the country. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony were the highest paid last year, with an annual average salary of $169,676. CSO players’ annual average salary was $162,188. Association President Jeff Alexander said the California symphonies’ higher salary was because the cost of living is higher than in Chicago.

Musicians say they’ll resume the CSO performances schedule, beginning with a May 2 performance with conductor Muti. Musicians have been playing free concerts around Chicago and the suburbs. They are planning on performing Monday at Steinmetz HIgh School, and said the free tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

According to the association, ticket-holders and subscribers have been able to receive refunds or use their tickets as credit for future concerts.

Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd.

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