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Symphony musicians authorize strike if no deal by March 10

Members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians

Members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians announce they have voted overwhelmingly to strike against the Chicago Symphony Orchestra if no contract is reached by March 10. | Troy Closson/Sun-Times

Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians have voted to authorize a strike on March 10 if a deal for a new three-year contract isn’t reached by that date, CSO representatives announced Thursday.

The musicians’ union began negotiating a new labor agreement 11 months ago, and their old contract, which expired in September, was extended to March 10.

A matinee performance is scheduled for 3 p.m. that day. Stephen Lester, chairman of union’s negotiating committee, said the musicians voted Wednesday night to perform that concert — Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. Then, the orchestra’s 100 musicians will walk out at midnight as their contract expires again.

Union officials would not give a vote tally, saying only that the strike was authorized with overwhelming support.

The musicians say proposed salaries are too low, with CSO pay falling behind other top groups across the country. Without specifying how much they seek in raises, Lester said the union hopes “to match the gains of other orchestras.”

“We want a fair and competitive contract,” Lester said. “The overwhelming vote to strike was driven by management’s insistence on reducing benefits and offering inadequate compensation.”

Representatives from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association — the CSO’s management — said in an email statement Thursday that they’re committed to reaching an agreement allowing the organization to “remain financially sustainable long into the future, while also generously supporting the musicians and their future.”

“Even though CSO musicians have one of the best contracts in the industry,” the statement said, “the CSOA is not asking for a concessionary agreement.

“In spite of the fact that the CSOA has been experiencing annual operating deficits for several years, the Association has already offered an improvement in wages and working conditions, and will continue to offer a generous retirement package in our discussions.”

Among the highest-paid American orchestras, CSO had ranked second in compensation paid to musicians a few years ago. Since the 2015-2016 season, the orchestra has been ranked in third. But as salaries for other orchestras rise, the gap between CSO and both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony — the two highest -aid groups last season — has widened.

The CSO statement highlighted the musicians’ guaranteed paid time off and available sabbatical time as the highest nationwide, and said those with higher wages in Los Angeles and San Francisco also have higher living costs.

CSO musicians last went on strike in 2012 after their season had begun. The two-day walkout led to the cancellation of one of music director Riccardo Muti’s subscription concerts.

Other key points of contention as the potential March 10 strike approaches include proposals to raise the musicians’ health care costs and end their defined-benefit pension plan. In the previous three-year contract, musicians’ pension benefits increased by 4.3 percent, while health care plans and contributions did not change.

“They’ve asked for concessions,” said Lester regarding CSOA’s health care proposals. “They’ve received concessions over the last four or five contracts. Yet, they continue to ask for more … which will seriously degrade the kind of coverage that our members need.”

Symphony representatives said they will issue a statement later Thursday in response to the union.

On pension plans, Lester said management seeks to “shift all of the risk in retirement benefits” to musicians by getting rid of the defined benefit plan. The musicians, he said, want to maintain the current plan, which they’ve had for “almost 50 years.”

Symphony violist Gina DiBello said the vote to strike next month ultimately comes down to “safeguarding” the orchestra’s legacy and world-renowned reputation.

“This shows a lack of vision for the future,” DiBello said. “This proposal does nothing to respect the world-class stature that the orchestra has maintained for the last 128 years.”