Strike at Chicago Symphony Threatens Carnegie Hall Gala

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians struck over the weekend. Photographer: Todd Rosenberg/Chicago Symphony Orchestra via Bloomberg

Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike this weekend, hours before their first Saturday night concert of the 2012-13 season.

The action, involving one of the country’s most acclaimed orchestras, comes at a time when management-labor disputes threaten classical seasons in several cities. The strike also imperils Carnegie Hall’s gala next month in New York.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association said it was informed less than two hours before its program of Dvorak and Respighi was scheduled to begin that the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10-208 had called a strike.

Average annual pay, including overtime, for the contract that ended last week was $173,000, the association said. Musicians play 160 concerts a year and receive 12 weeks of paid time off.

The union said that the association knew for days that the program was in jeopardy.

Stephen Lester, a double-bass player and chairman of the negotiating committee, said the strike was called over health-care costs. After a decade in which musicians’ health expenses were little changed, their contributions would skyrocket under the proposed new contract, he said. He declined to provide figures.

Pay Decrease

“Our take-home pay would be less than it was,” he said. “There is a political climate among some board members that this is a time to take a hard line against unionized musicians.”

The scheduled New York concert puts pressure on both sides.

Led by star music director Riccardo Muti, the CSO is to play Carnegie Hall’s season opener on Oct. 3, a prime fundraiser with tickets as high as $5,000.

“I’d hope our musicians would not jeopardize the relationship we have with Carnegie Hall,” CSO Association President Deborah Rutter said in an interview.

Synneve Carlino, a Carnegie Hall spokesman, declined to say whether the hall is preparing contingency entertainment, but noted that CSO’s three-night engagement remains on schedule.

“We’re aware of the news from Chicago and join everyone in hoping there will soon be a resolution,” she said in an e-mail.

Rutter called the association’s $18,000-per-musician health-care plan above average for employers and the contributions sought below average.

Top Pay

The association offered a minimum weekly base salary of $2,795 for this season, up $10 from the minimum in the contract that ended last week, it said in a statement. Pay would be up 4 percent by the third year, for a salary at the top end of U.S. orchestras.

The orchestra had a $1.3 million operating deficit in the year ending June 2012, said Rachelle Roe, an association spokesman. The prior season’s deficit was $927,000 according to the CSO’s annual report.

“The economy is extremely challenging,” Rutter said. “Ours is a resource-heavy activity, meaning people. We just don’t have much flexibility in how we employ our musicians.”

The union didn’t agree to negotiate until July, and then was available for four half-day sessions before demanding a recess, the association said in its statement.

Heartbreaking Experience

“The committee and our counsel felt there was plenty of time to come to a deal,” Lester responded. “We love to play music. It was a heartbreaking experience to have to turn our audience away.”

Musicians are locked out at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Contracts expire this month at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra, with no deal yet at either Twin Cities institution.

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