Pensions, money and mayoral pressure were keys to CSO contract settlement

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Maestro Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem on Nov. 8, 2018, at Symphony Center. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

How important was Mayor Rahm Emanuel in settling the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strike? It may have saved the season, plus the summer concert series at the Ravinia Festival, a leader of the musicians union said Monday.

Stephen Lester, chairman of the musicians’ negotiating committee, said the outgoing mayor’s intervention came as there was no end in sight to the seven-week strike. Lester said the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association had become increasingly dire in its warnings to the musicians.

“The association was threatening to cancel the entire season and the Ravinia season,” Lester said. “We were astounded at the destructive, scorched-earth policy they were following.”

Association President Jeff Alexander disputed that description, saying managers never wanted to cancel the season and that the talks, while frank, were respectful. But he said Emanuel had a key role in getting both parties to make concessions.

“He certainly put a lot of pressure on us,” Alexander said. “I imagine the same can be said for the other side.”

Both sides reached a tentative deal Friday after Emanuel directed several hours of back-and-forth diplomacy in the mayor’s office. It was ratified the next day by CSO members, part of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, and the association’s directors.

The five-year deal is retroactive to September 2018 and expires in September 2023.

It calls for pay increases totaling 14 percent over the life of the contract, no changes in the musicians’ contribution toward health care and a gradual switch from a traditional pension to a 401(k) defined contribution plan.

For the union, the pension change was a significant compromise. But the association had to add money to the contract to make an agreement viable. Alexander said management’s prior salary offer topped out at 12 percent.

The musicians will have the option, starting July 1, 2020, to move to the defined contribution plan with a base employer contribution plus additional payments, from 1 percent to 10 percent of salary, based on age and years of service.

As of July 1, 2023, all musicians will move to the defined contribution plan.

Lester said the agreement protects members’ accrued benefits while giving them the option of investing for greater returns if financial markets are favorable.

Alexander said that under the current pension, members cannot earn benefits for more than 35 years of service. He said the new plan would let that group, about a fifth of the orchestra, earn more money for retirement.

The annual salary increases will bring the orchestra’s base pay to $181,272 in the final year of the contract. Lester, a double bassist, said it would leave the CSO with lower salaries than the orchestras in Los Angeles and San Francisco and roughly equal to those of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Retirement benefits for new hires could still be contentious. Alexander said new hires automatically go on the defined contribution plan as of July 1, 2020, but Lester said that point is unsettled and will be taken up by a labor-management committee.


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