By Ayumi Davis
About two blocks away from Roosevelt University lies the home of the Chicago Symphonic Orchestra (CSO) on Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Symphony Center. Normally, you’d hear music, but if you were to walk past it right now, you would notice about three or four people, musicians, circling in front of it, holding big signs with big, block letters that read, “ON STRIKE: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Musicians.”
Cars honk in support for them, circling as they pass by in traffic. Every day since March 11, the CSO musicians have put down their instruments and picked up signs to protest the changes that management has for their contracts.
The strike wasn’t a sudden choice for the musicians. In fact, it has been a year-long battle between the musicians and management regarding pay and their pension plan. Negotiations had been underway since last year, Feb. 12 to be exact, earlier than when negotiations for the contract usually started, explained Jim Smelser, 58, a member of the CSO for 19 years now.
“We met early because we wanted to finish early. We were hoping to finish months early. So then we went back to the traditional bargaining time in the fall. So, the contract date came and we didn’t have a contract, we didn’t have an agreement,” Smelser said. “So, we mutually decided to extend the contract from September to March, March 10. And the reason for that was we wanted both sides to spend more time working together the issue of pension.”
Smelser explained more, being the vice chairman of Player’s Committee, a group that represents the musicians, as well as part of the negotiation team that directly communicates with management. He pointed out that they had formed a special subgroup for this specific problem, even hiring an outside company to advise them on an alternative pension plan, but it still didn’t work out.
“We resumed in January, our negotiations. Then, we went to Asia for three weeks. Then, we were home for two weeks. We went to Florida for another tour. Then, we negotiated for a week. Now, we’re up to March 10, still no contract, and that’s when we went on strike,” Smelse said.
What management proposed from the start has changed since the beginning, but what they have most recently proposed is a pension plan that is based on investment, a 401K (a risk-based investment), that the management has admitted would cost them more, stated by David Griffin, 53, a member of the CSO for 23 years now. To put it in simpler terms, what management has offered is a “direct contribution plan” to replace the “defined contribution plan.”
Griffin explained that the switch to a direct contribution plan would not be beneficial for the older members of the symphony, calling it a “downgrade.” On the other hand, he said that it would be more beneficial for the younger members. “We want everyone to benefit collectively, not just a certain part of the group. Having said that, we have very reasonable people who want to strike a compromise. We want to get back to playing great music,” said Griffin.
The other problem these musicians have is that the pay is not up to par. For the musicians, they feel the pay should reflect the status of the orchestra. “We look at the wages of peer orchestras and our wages have slipped in the last six to eight years relative to orchestras like San Francisco, Los Angeles and there are orchestras that have always been beneath us that are starting to creep up towards our wage level. So, we’re trying to protect our wages,” Griffin said.
On the other hand, it seems as if some are not worried about the pay, because, it should be a given, as Smelser explained, “The wages always come last. We’re not worried about that because it’s just kind of assumed that you should get some sort of a raise to meet the cost of living.”
Recently, the musicians’ healthcare has expired and they have had to get new healthcare on April 1, Griffin said. But as he puts it, it doesn’t deter them to stop striking, that they’re waiting on a “good deal.”
“The Art Institute could save a lot of money, if they close their doors. They wouldn’t have to spend any money on staff or acquisitions if they just shut their doors. But what’s the point? Art organizations are not-for-profit organizations. You have to see them for what they are, as something that inspires and enlightens the people, the concertgoers. So, I hope they come to their senses about it,” said Griffin.
The musicians love their job, having been in this job for many years. It’s a dream come true and a prestigious job that many of them take pride in. For them, it’s their main and only job to support their livelihood, the hours of practice, concerts and commitments making it so. For them, the words “dream come true” ring with this job. Smelser said, “ I love my job. Sure, I love this. It’s really a mission and a calling. It’s a blessing to be here. And what we really want to do is protect what we have.”