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Striking CSO musicians picket in front of Orchestra Hall over contract dispute

Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians walked the picket line outside of Orchestra Hall Monday on the first chilly day of their strike.

The group included Stephen Lester, chairperson of the union’s negotiating committee. Lester said Monday the musicians’ biggest concerns are management proposals for “inadequate” salary increases and eliminating their defined benefit pensions plan.

The Chicago Federation of Musicians announced the strike Sunday night and said performances were being suspended.

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

Lester, who took part in that strike and is now in his 41st season in the orchestra, said everyone’s goal is to start playing again as soon as possible.

“We hope it will be short,” Lester said. “But the orchestra is very determined and will stay out as long as is necessary to ensure the future of our organization.”

Though he anticipates negotiations with the governing Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association will soon start again, Lester said no sessions had been scheduled.

CSOA representatives said Sunday night they were “disappointed” by the decision to strike after 11 months of negotiations. In a letter sent to the musicians and media late last week, CSOA’s president Jeff Alexander outlined management’s proposed contract — including increases in the annual pay base during the proposed contract from $160,606 to $167,094.

In a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, Alexander said the union was seeking an annual base pay of up to $178,000, which was “unreasonable” and not part of a “sustainable future” for the orchestra.

The CSOA administration hopes to be back at the negotiating table by Friday, and said that performances that were scheduled for this weekend will likely be canceled if negotiations continue to stall.

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 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-paid groups last season — has widened.

“The fact is that is costs significantly more to live in those cities than in Chicago, and their higher compensation attempts to mitigate that reality,” the letter read. “In reality, it is clear that you are much better off than your colleagues in California.”

In response, Lester said Monday “that’s factually incorrect.”

“The Association wants to put us on a downward path in relationship to these other orchestras,” Lester said. “We’re not asking for the moon. We’re asking to be paid at the level that we’re playing.”

Extra picket signs leaning against Symphony Hall

Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians went on strike Sunday and were walking a picket line Monday morning on Michigan Avenue outside Orchestra Hall. Performances are now suspended, the union said in a statement Sunday night. A picket line outside Orchestra Hall was set to last through 8 p.m. Monday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Also at issue is management’s proposal to change the musicians’ pension to a direct contribution plan from a defined benefit plan.

Musicians say the proposal would unfairly shift the investment risk in retirement benefits to them. But according to the CSOA, the defined benefit plan isn’t financially feasible.

“The challenge with the current Defined Benefit Plan is the funding requirements … have grown dramatically in recent years,” Alexander’s letter read. “In the case of the CSO, for example, two years ago we were required to put $803,000 into the DB pension fund. This year we will be required to put in $3,800,000.”

Alexander said Monday that “the pension issue is the bigger and more complex issue and the issue at which we are furthest apart.”

Cynthia Yeh, the orchestra’s principal percussionist, is in her 12th season with the CSO and picketed on Michigan Avenue along with the other musicians. She was also present for the 2012 strike, but said the current situation is very different from seven years ago.

“This is a much more serious and important strike as in what they want to take away is fundamental in our life here,” Yeh said. “We are doing this so that we are attracting the best of the best. We got to where we are because of what we have had in the past, and we need to continue that.”