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NY Musicians Stay In Tune With Striking Chicago Symphony Orchestra

April 18, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Last week, more than 150 people rallied outside Lincoln Center in a show of solidarity by American Federation of Musicians Local 802 with Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians who have been on strike for more than a month.

Local 802 members perform in front of Lincoln Center in support of striking fellow musicians in Chicago.

“In Chicago, we are fighting for fair wages that ensure the well-being of our members and the orchestra—in fact, all orchestras. No orchestra of musician should be at the mercy of the stock market or the capricious decisions of a board,” Chicago Symphony flautist Emma Gerstein said in a statement released by Local 802. “We see that the issues of this strike—fair payment and pension—are critical to the future of the CSO and every orchestra throughout the nation.”

The rally featured a brass band composed of 30 horn players from the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the New York City Ballet, conducted by Philharmonic trombonist Joseph Alessi. Met Opera clarinetist Jessica Phillips, Philharmonic violinist Fiona Simon, and City Ballet harpist Sara Cutler also spoke, and members of Local 802, IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, Actors Equity, and other performing-arts unions also participated.

The musicians of the Chicago Symphony—widely considered one of the nation’s top seven orchestras, along with the Philharmonic and those in Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—have been on strike since March 10. The key issues in dispute are Chicago Federation of Musicians Local 10-208’s demand for salary increases that would give them “parity” with the other top orchestras, and management’s demand that they give up their defined-benefit pensions and switch to a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan.

Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, told Crain’s Chicago Business that “a big part” of the reason for wanting to eliminate traditional pensions was that they are threatening to eat into the orchestra’s $300 million endowment. The association already spends 5% of its endowment on operating expenses each year.

Crain’s questioned that logic. “Converting the defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution setup would cost the organization more in the short run,” reporter Lisa Bertagnoli wrote Apr. 14. The orchestra has posted record ticket sales for the past several years, it said, and its contributions to the proposed defined-contribution plan would cost at least $1.4 million a year, on top of its current pension obligations of about $3.4 million a year.

One longtime donor who asked not to be named told Crain’s they suspected the real reason was that management, particularly multibillionaire board chair Helen Zell, “has a philosophical problem with the defined-benefit plan.”

“They are enjoying ever-increasing ticket revenue and donations to the orchestra. Management is more than capable of managing its pension liabilities without shifting all the risk onto musicians,” Local 802 said. “The Chicago Symphony is one of the top orchestras in the world because of the tireless work and talent of the musicians—and they deserve a salary and benefits package that reflects their artistry and hard work.”

April 18, 2019

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