No sooner had a weeklong strike by Chicago public school teachers been settled than a walkout by musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra over the weekend again focused national attention on labor matters in the city.
The strike resulted in the cancellation of a concert under Riccardo Muti's direction Saturday night at Symphony Center andthreatened several more scheduled concerts this week, along with a scheduled tour to New York and Mexico in early October. It comes as a serious blow to the reputation of an internationally celebrated cultural institution at which labor contracts have been hard-fought over the years but have generally been settled without backroom contention boiling over into the media before they were signed.
Deborah Rutter, president of the CSO Association, the orchestra's parent body, would not speculate on whether the scheduled subscription concerts Wednesday and Friday nights, a concert in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Thursday or Saturday's Symphony Ball fundraiser would be canceled if the two sides failed to reach an agreement early this week. Nor would she say whether the orchestra's Oct. 3-10 tour to Carnegie Hall and two cities in Mexico would have to be postponed or scrapped.
"When you're in these dynamic situations, everything's at risk," Rutter said. "We have to plan for every contingency. I'm working on the assumption we will be able to move forward with (the tour)."
No further bargaining sessions have been scheduled for this week, she added. In keeping with the general policy of orchestra music directors, Muti has not issued any statement about the strike and was not available for comment Sunday.
There was no picket line Sunday outside Symphony Center, as there was the previous evening. The musicians agreed to let scheduled auditions for the principal timpani position take place Sunday and Monday, with the orchestra's audition committee, which includes union members, in attendance. The next activities in danger of cancellation, with musicians returning to the picket lines, are two rehearsals scheduled for Tuesday and a subscription concert Wednesday night.
Players at the forefront of the strike action are taking a hard-line stance.
"We will not be playing Tuesday until we have an agreement," said CSO bass player Stephen Lester, chairman of the orchestra members committee, which negotiates the musicians' contracts.
The three-year contract rejected by the musicians would have provided them with a minimum base weekly salary of $2,795 in the first year, $2,835 in the second and $2,910 in the third, according to a statement released by the CSO. The previous weekly base minimum salary, per the five-year contract that expired Sept. 16, was $2,785.
The most recent strike in CSO history occurred in 1991, when a work stoppage lasting two weeks canceled 11 concerts and postponed Daniel Barenboim's official debut as music director.
Lester said neither he nor his fellow musicians wanted or were prepared for a strike.
"We did not have a torrent of public relations messages ready to go," he said. "We're still getting organized."
The recent Chicago teachers strike had no impact on the committee's decision to call for a work stoppage, he added.
Lester said the association forced the musicians' hands by not budging from a take-it-or-leave-it offer the union found unacceptable in the new three-year contract being negotiated since July 13, he said. Bargaining sessions ran until Aug. 2 and didn't resume until Sept. 10, Lester said.
"I think we were all surprised," he said. "The negotiating committee had gone more than we wanted to go to try to get a deal, and their last actions sent a very clear and distinct message that they were not interested in an agreement. They tried to force a strike, to force a wedge between the members of the orchestra and the community we serve."
Key issues remain compensation and health care contributions.
"They have asked for drastic increases in health insurance payments that would not be offset by the increased salary," Lester said. "We countered and countered, (but) they would not accept our attempts at a compromise."
A key part of the impasse, he added, is a disagreement over the fiscal state of the orchestra.
"There's been no fundamental change in the economic situation of the orchestra at all," he said. "We know these numbers very well. We have not seen substantial increase even in our health care costs over what they were 10 years ago. Those numbers have remained relatively flat. There may be other issues, but the musicians are not responsible for (them)."
Lester contends musician compensation, including salary, pensions, health care and overtime, constitutes far less than one-third of the total budget.