Strike up the band! Chicago Symphony walks out of contract talks

Another Chicago institution has gone on strike: Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the best in the United States, followed the Chicago teachers’ example.

Symphony musicians decided not to show up for a concert Saturday night after their contract expired, having already played shows on Thursday and Friday nights.

So instead of the melodies of Respighi and Dvorak, residents of the Windy City heard the familiar strains of another labor-versus-management drama.


“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is extremely disappointed that the musicians have decided to strike,” Deborah Rutter, president of the association, said in a statement. “Looking around the country, it’s clear that the more prudent path would be to work with us to ensure their future, rather than engage in this action.”

Cellist David Sanders, picketing in front of the city’s Symphony Center on Saturday night, told the Chicago Classical Review that the association is “asking for major concessions. It’s thousands of dollars in givebacks. We spent weeks [negotiating and] giving them everything they asked for, and they continue to take away and take away and take away.”

The biggest sticking point involves healthcare. The “last, best and final” contract offered by management, Rutter said, asks for musicians to increase their contributions to healthcare coverage premiums from 5% to 12%.

The union wanted the increased burden, which would amount to a pay cut for some members, to be offset by greater wage increases. Management refused, saying the orchestra’s musicians were among the best-paid in the U.S. So the strike was on.

“I think it’s despicable,” subscriber Alvin Beatty told the Chicago Sun-Times. “They are thumbing their noses at the people who pay them.” He added, “The CSO is the beneficiary of half of my estate. I’m going to tell you, I’m going to rethink it.”

The last strike by the Chicago Federation of Musicians Local 10-208 was in 1991. This one comes after the boom years of the early 2000s ended, putting the brakes on many major art institutions’ finances.

“CSO revenues are growing at small percentages per year, while expenses — of which musicians’ salaries and benefits represent the largest fixed costs of the organization — are growing at a much steeper pace,” Rutter said.

The musicans’ recently expired five-year contract had increased their minimum pay to $144,820 a year.