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Chicago: strike’s over. What’s been learned?

The musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra voted a few minutes ago to ratify a new three-year deal, ending a three-day strike. A few lessons may have been learned.

Lesson 1: Players in luxury orchestras cannot afford to strike. In 2012, musicians with average pay of $175,000 cannot expect much solidarity when their fellow-professionals across the land are enduring savage pay cuts and lockouts.

Lesson 2: Orchestra managements should not let negotiations drag down to the season-opening wire. Cut the deal by August, or find another way.

Lesson 3: The American way of running orchestras needs to change. Players and managers need to get together round a bar and find a better way of doing business. The kind of dinosaur play we’re seeing in Atlanta, Minnesota, St Paul, Chicago and elsewhere looks lumbering and ridiculous in the 21st century. Call a national conference. Get a new agenda.


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  1. Antonio J Augusto says:

    I agree with the third lesson, but I cannot agree with the first. Players in luxury orchestras, as you call the CSO’s, have an obligation to stand firm in the valuation of our profession and to raise the level of discussion with between musicians and administrators. We already had enough this kind of thinking that places musicians and any throwaway product in the same proportion.

  2. Chris Worswick says:

    I really disagree with point #1. The same point was made in the paper when Seattle Symphony tempted strike at the end of 2009, effectively pitting a well paid (in comparison to the average musician in Seattle, although not necessarily to similarly talented other groups) group of musicians against the general population. Why do we all have to be in poverty before a working group is permitted to fight for their salary? Chicago Symphony is a world class orchestra in a world class city, and should be paid appropriately. They have a right to collective bargaining which includes the possibility of striking to put pressure on management. Most workers aren’t permitted to discuss their salaries because it raises dissension and dissatisfaction with the continuing erosion of people’s welfare. If anything all musicians should be in arms about the crap they take to make a buck. Music is an essential part of a culture (and you may disagree, but I believe this). Too many people in this country are unwilling to stand up for their rights to make a living wage. The fact that this world class organization makes higher than average wages does not relieve them of that right. These are people making a wage, paying taxes and living well because of the immense amount of intensive work they have done to get to where they are. They are not the 1% who make 10 times what they do, pay little taxes, and make their money because of someone else’s labor. Don’t pit the worker against worker.

    • Chris, base pay of $150,000 is far more than a living wage in every city on the planet. I fully support the musicians of Atlanta, Indianapolis, Minnesota, etc. who are seeing huge, huge cuts to their pay, but the fact that the Chicago musicians went on strike in this economy when being offered a raise was completely absurd. It reinforces the image of classical musicians being elitists who aren’t connected to regular culture, and it was completely politically moronic to strike an hour and a half before a concert.

      Again, they were offered a raise. They decided to strike, clearly realized what kind of horrible press they were getting, and rushed back to the negotiating table. Good on them for making the right decision, but the musicians in the orchestra that voted for the strike should be ashamed.

    • Chris – I agree with your point that all workers are entitled to organize and strike. But the article’s other point in #1 is probably true also, that sympathy is difficult when so many other orchestra musicians face pay cuts from salaries that are nowhere near Chicago’s level or the loss of their orchestra altogether.

      Underlying both points is the need to recognize that even those earning a high salary are still “workers.” Anyone working for a salary is a worker. Too many workers think they are “professionals” and thus in a different category. All the political talk about “middle-class” is really a euphemism for “worker.” Until we all reassert our standing as “workers” we will continue to lose the legal and social support earned by 100 years of organized labor.

  3. Hi

    You said that a musician luxury receives $ 175,000 per year, correct? As a musician receives normal in American orchestras?


    Silvio Flórido -Brazil

  4. I agree, and respectfully add three more:

    Lesson 4: If you must strike, don’t do it an hour before a concert, when your ardent fans have already driven in to the city, parked and are eating dinner. Guaranteed to generate anger and resentment.

    Lesson 5: Top US orchestra musicians are at peak salary and have nowhere to go but down, in real terms. If Chicago musicians can no longer stage a meaningful job action, then the game is over.

    Lesson 6: The meme that you must pay the most to attract the best has been proven a fallacy. It’s a new world and more than just money matters to many top musicians.

  5. The CSO musicians are very well paid by musician standards. Please post the salaries of Debbie Rutter, the rest of the administration , conductors and soloists.

  6. Didn’t Obama have something to do with the state of illinois before he became President?

  7. Charlotte Lehnhoff says:

    It is misleading to state “average” in this way to give the impression that everyone earns such a salary. The “average” salary of $175,000 is a rounded-off figure, which includes the salaries of the concertmaster, many of the principals, plus all members of the sections.

  8. Whine, whine, whine. In an economy where almost everyone is taking cuts to pay or benefits because business is down in most sectors. Whether you want to accept it or not, Orchestras are a luxury. They are entertainment and when people cannot afford gas and food, entertainment budgets get cut.

    You also have to admit that negotiations in such a public forum have a political component to them. Each side tries to manipulate the public and press to their side to gain leverage. Did the players actually think that they could win the PR battle when they earn far above the average wage of the people that they are asking to support them? They just came off as overpaid whiners that don’t want to take a small reduction like everyone else has. Doesn’t matter if it is true or not, perception IS reality.

  9. Applause for the over compensated wussies who could care less about their audiences, donors and community.

    Another win for the 1%!

  10. Tamara Meinecke says:

    It’s all very well to tell us that we should “meet around the bar.” But management and boards are not observing basic negotiating procedures, basic courtesy (deactivating their key cards, calling in paid security); they are attacking musicians in the press; they are not answering basic questions about finances truthfully. Trust has been completely destroyed.

  11. William Safford says:

    Here’s a group of musicians whose management wants them to be eligible for food stamps: the Richmond Symphony.


    Richmond Symphony Musicians Continue To Perform – For Immediate Release
    September 20, 2012
    Musicians of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra will perform the season opening
    concert this Friday September 21, 2012 despite the fact that the musicians’
    contract expired August 31, 2012. The Agreement between Richmond Musicians
    Association, Local 123 of the American Federation of Musicians and the
    Richmond Symphony Inc. has been under negotiation since January of this
    During the last bargaining session on September 7, 2012, RSO Inc. issued the
    musicians representatives a “final offer”. According to negotiating
    committee chairman Richard Serpa “As soon as we receive a complete document
    we will send it to the rank and file for a vote”. Local 123 President George
    Tuckwiller says “The final offer is not a tentative agreement and demands
    regressive wages and conditions. Local 123 will not recommend acceptance of
    the offer to the musicians.”
    Serpa adds, “We believe that the issues are not just the reduction of
    musicians’ wages and working conditions but major downsizing of one of
    Richmond’s premier cultural assets. Richmond not only deserves a first class
    symphony, it has committed to the development of the cultural district. We
    don’t believe that the city of Richmond and multiple investors spent
    millions of dollars in restoration and redevelopment in Richmond’s cultural
    district only to end up with a symphony that is not respected in the
    industry as a major player.
    Tuckwiller adds, “The RSO’s “final offer” reduces a section musicians annual
    wage from $32,785 to $28,886 including a two week reduction in season length
    and slashes nearly every benefit the musicians receive. The musicians simply
    can’t afford this offer. The annual wage would enable a married musician
    with two children to be eligible for SNAP. We are not interested in
    handouts. We want to be able to afford our own food and put it on the table
    for our family.”
    Musicians are performing tonight because we believe that Richmond deserves a
    great orchestra. We believe that staying on stage and performing without a
    job action and for our patrons will give incentive to our supporters in the
    community to insist on preserving and growing the best orchestra Richmond
    can afford”. It is incumbent to the future of the RSO that the Richmond
    community and all arts supporters stand up and convey their feelings and
    support for the continuation of the Richmond Symphony”, says Tuckwiller.

  12. Capt. Spaulding says:

    Norman, please stop spreading that misleading number regarding average salary. You know darn well that management jacks that number up with the principal players’ and concertmaster’s salary figured in. The base figure is much lower. And something else you posted a couple of days ago is equally misleading. 20 hour work week? Are you kidding? Do you have any idea how much commitment to practice and training is required to make it look easy? Seriously? We have been training for these careers since we were kids, and we have made many sacrifices to be the best at what we do. Luxury my buttocks…it costs more to live in the bigger cities and the pay reflects that.
    We are paid well because we are really, really good at what we do, but unlike many of the hedge fund managers who now infest our boards, we cannot afford to hoard it. We are the job creators and sustainers. Our kids go to your day care, we get our hair cut in your salons, or have our cars repaired in your shops. We also do volunteer work and give back to the communities in which we live, so quit regurgitating management’s propaganda.

    • In order to aspire to a job in a full time orchestra, a musician must undergo training and apprenticeship every bit as rigorous as that of physicians, attorneys, or other professionals. Yet we don’t hear much about those folks’ average income. And musicians’ equipment can cost into six figures. As others have stated, the musicians in these orchestras are doing the jobs for which they were hired.

      In their statement announcing the settlement of their strike, the spokesman for the musicians of the Chicago Symphony stated:

      “This negotiation process has revealed a fundamental shift in the attitude of those who are entrusted with the stewardship of our essential art form.”

      That is the real story here. That is the issue persons interested in the perpetuation of classical music should be examining.

  13. Nandor Szederkenyi says:

    I believe there is a misunderstanding with the first lesson;
    this lesson is just the conclusion of the other two: problems simply have to be solved without a strike.
    I would say, not only because the fellow musicians worldwide (who may or may not be exactly as good musicians as the CSO members) wouldn’t have solidarity, but just because management-orchestra problems shouldn’t be a subject for the public.

  14. Nandor Szederkenyi says:

    I would like to make a small note to all those fellow musicians who are so sure that CSO musicians are SO MUCH better than any one else from the rest of the musicians’ world and therefore they must be payed even better than they have been payed before this amazing strike.

    First of all, please, if you are a CSO member, be very happy that you had the ability and luck to be part of that marvelous orchestra. But please, don’t be offended if we, the rest of the world, aren’t that happy when you are making a strike (even shortly before a concert) because you believe that you are really better than the rest of the world.

    Even if the figure of $175.000 wouldn’t be correct, it is still far higher than many but really many if not all major orchestra salaries worldwide. It is, especially these days, an outrageously high pay for musicians in compare to the rest of the orchestras worldwide, not even mentioned the millions of freelance musicians who are working for peanuts to feed their families.
    Be happy that these days, when we have a strong decline of audiences worldwide, when our salaries are getting less and less, when we have to go on the streets to play for cents in summer or winter, playing often in unbearable conditions; please be extremely happy that you have a job at CSO.
    And please believe, there is a huge crowd of musicians who are at least as good musicians as you are!

  15. It is always so uplifting to read the wholly idiotic, nasty, and ill-informed comments of so many of the pseudonymous and anonymous “commenters” here. It is hard to believe that these people even know what music is let alone that they have any appreciation or knowledge of it. And alas, Norman, for reasons that the first group of *signed* comments point out, “Lesson 1″ is nonsense: The figures are wrong and distorted and the players neither lacked support nor harmed or ignored their colleagues across the country. They reached a settlement with the board of a highly successful and fiscally well-managed enterprise. It’s a shame that it took a (48-hour) strike to do so and the other “lessons” that you posit are indeed important ones for the future. But there were other agendas at work here within — but not wholly representing — the board and they did not have to do with culture or with how to run a great orchestra.

  16. I think the bigger point that’s lost is a simple one: timing.

    CSO musicians went on strike before a four-day period with no performances, a major symphony fundraiser the following weekend, and tours to Carnegie Hall and Mexico in the two subsequent weeks. Kind of like a few years ago, when The Cleveland Orchestra went on strike a handful of days before a trip to Bloomington, followed up by their Miami residency. And lo and behold, there as well, TCO was on strike for a period of time better measured in hours and not days.

    Now combine that with the fact that the CSOA was willing to do play and talk, which means they could afford to keep the musicians on last year’s pay/benefits scale. That’s markedly different from the situations and messages we’re seeing from management in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Minnesota, SPCO, etc.

    My guess is that if the musicians didn’t walk, management would have dragged this out for months, spending even more time looking for reasons as to why the sky is falling. Instead, musicians take action, management is stuck with real and measurable consequences for delay, and the deal is done on the first business day after the strike.

    People who think this is some grievous PR screw-up for the musicians and that the event will even be remembered in two weeks are sorely mistaken. To the average person, it’s already in the rear-view mirror. The musicians played their hand as well as they could have:

    1. Play opening night.
    2. Force the cancellation of at least one concert. That gets the media’s attention and the first people they’ll be asking questions of is management, who seemed like they were caught flat-footed.
    3. With a major fundraiser the next weekend, the phone calls that matter on Monday won’t be from Saturday’s jilted subscribers. They’ll be from next weekend’s donors, some of whom paid $25k a table and care more about their social calendar being messed with than which side wins.
    4. Pick a time when management has major consequences for not getting the deal done. Symphony Ball? Check. Carnegie? Check. Mexico? Check.

    When social media went all Chicken Little, the one thing I said to friends – and having no real first-hand information – is that the CSO would be back on stage by Tuesday. All the signs were there, if only one stopped long enough to observe them.

    People who are looking for deeper meaning in this event are fishing for something that isn’t there.

  17. Lesson #1 CSO musicians can afford to strike. The CSO musicians had the power and means to do it. The CSO management was willing to budge numbers only after the strike, so it was effective. The base pay of a CSO musician is $144,000. ‘Average’ pay number is $30,000 higher then what 90 members of the orchestra make and is a misleading term and number. (it counts in the 12 principal and titled chair higher salaries, which are individually negotiated, often in a bidding war between orchestras, some of whom make in the 300′s). Public opinion does not decide an agreement. The PR from the CSO management was meant to intimidate the musicians through public opinion. It’s a tool. The CSO musicians have a healthy self esteem and can withstand the pressure.
    Solidarity from other fellow professionals is present. Jealousy is also present. It is unintelligent to think that if the CSO musicians salaries would be cut it would help fellow musicians. It is quite the opposite. It will help other orchestra managements to have more reasons to cut musicians salaries further. As we know, the CSO musicians’ salaries are not taking away salaries from any other orchestra musicians. Quite the opposite, they are looked upon as examples to be followed by the rest of the country and would help other professionals.
    It is impossible to put a price on a musicians ability and even more on an orchestra. Experience, tradition, talent, and musicianship is something that can not be bought and is priceless. It is a useless discussion, and if you do it, it will mean you don’t respect or know the value of art or music. Apart from that, a salary of 144-175,000 is fair for someone at the top of their field worldwide. But in the end it is all about if the musicians are willing to play for what someone wants to pay them. You can force them into paying less and put up a horrible fight that you might win or you might loose. Which as a by product could destroy the collegial atmosphere and century old tradition that makes the CSO better then any other American Orchestra. There is a reason why Riccardo Muti chose the CSO. You would destroy the product that you are supposedly proud to sell to the world. A product that brings in record ticket sales and donations in a flailing economy, for a good reason.
    Lesson #2 Agree.
    Lesson #3 no opinion
    Lesson #4 Illuminating article on recent CSO strike by arts lawyers firm Moen & Case

  18. One of the most astounding take aways from this is how differently it ended for Chicago and Atlanta musicians. It is impossible to understand without all of the information, but there must be an incredible case study there.

  19. Experience , tradition ? , talent and musicianship is always for sale and however you dress it up has always
    been for sale .The CSO just demonstrated that point in this latest scuffle-they got what they thought was all they could get so far , and so back to work>until the next skirmish.To paint the orchestra as something special is a
    personal view.Why Mr. Muti chose CSO one suspects is because he got the best salary and benefits for whatever work he does in playing the top 50 or so over and over ad nauseam .To believe the CSO orchestra or Mr. Muti
    serve music is naive , it is a knee jerk exercise in pretending to be cultured in bringing “great ” music to the
    masses and in doing so shows the “noble art” as an uplifting experience for humanity . Yawn ……..

    Arts lawyers ……??

    • That’s nonsense. Mr Muti was offered twice as much by the New York Phil and turned them down. Curb the cynicism.

      • Beg to differ – every musician knows what a “conductor meat grinder” the New York Phil can be and
        how they can make life a living hell for any conductor that displeases them – at his stage of life Mr. Muti is no fool and if he turned down the NYPhil . he knew it would be better being a loved emperor in Chicago than one always on his guard in NY .It is not cynicism and you of all people know it .

    • I agree that experience, tradition, talent, and musicianship are for sale. In many different quantities and qualities. That means if you don’t buy it you won’t get it.

      Regarding ‘Experience, tradition, talent, and musicianship is something that can not be bought’; this is meant in the sense that these things and especially a combination of these things are not generated by money, but by musicians ideals, respect for the art of music, attitudes, hard work from a young age, and shared experiences on the podium that create a particular tradition with a particular set of people that can not be recreated by anyone else.

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