Today was supposed to be a great one – we’ve long had tickets for a matinee at Symphony Center to see my favorite violinist, Anne Sophie Mutter, in recital with her longtime collaborative pianist Lambert Orkis and cellist Daniel Muller-Schott. Beethoven’s Ghost Trio was on the program. The Ravel Sonata. Some Mozart. I have been so very excited, and due to quite a bit of work-related stress, I have been in desperate need of a diversion of such magical greatness. And call me sentimental, but I was looking forward to seeing and supporting Anne Sophie in her time of mourning – she and the music world very recently lost her dear friend (and ex-husband), the legendary composer Andre Previn.
Alas, our dear symphony is on strike; Symphony Center is dark.
Yes, there is strife in Chicago Symphony Orchestra land. As I understand it, the negotiations over the last year have broken down on two main fronts: pensions and pay. Our musicians have long had a defined benefits pension plan, and now the board and management want to switch to a contribution-based pension plan. I don’t know the specifics of the proposal on the table, but the long-term costs of defined benefits plans are obviously higher, and the benefits themselves are greater, so it’s easy to see why the musicians want the better pension and the management wants the cheaper one.
The pay issue is not as significant but still real. The musicians are not happy with the one or two percent raises in the next contract. Now, let’s just get it on the table: the base pay for a rank and file CSO musician (not section leads) is about $160,000, which probably seems like a lot to a lot of folks. But remember, the CSO employs some of the finest musicians in the world – it’s important, for the sake of the pay of musicians in general, for the best of the best to be well-compensated. Considering workaday musician salaries (and yes, they definitely work for it!) really can’t get any higher than those in world-class orchestras, the bar needs to be set high – not just for themselves, but for the sake of musicians in less-storied ensembles the world over.
Put me on record as a union guy. I do know that there have been problems over the years. But I also understand that weekends, minimum wages, any benefits at all, limited work-weeks, and basically the American Middle Class all owe their existence to organized labor. American Capitalism needs unions to keep us in check. It’s also true that union power has been dramatically weakened since the 1970s, and some of the last holdouts – public sector unions like the firefighters, police, and teachers – are under constant assault. It’s no coincidence that income inequality has grown and real wages have stagnated over that same period. To my mind, it’s nice when relatively privileged folks like our CSO musicians take a stand to keep labor strong in America.
That said, I desperately hope the negotiations can be resolved by April 14 when I have tickets to see the legendary violinist Midori Goto.
Power to the people! I stand with you, Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Thanks for reading,