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Striking CSO Musicians Finally Speak; Mediated Negotiations to Resume This Afternoon

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 24, 2012 7:30PM

Photo from the CSO's Facebook page

The musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra released a statement last night, the first formal public address since they went on strike Saturday less than two hours prior to that evening’s concert.

The statement doesn’t dispute the terms of the disagreement laid out by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association - salary and health care contributions - but rather seeks to clarify those issues. The musicians want higher pay to offset the increased health care contributions that the CSOA has asked of the musicians. The last proposal by the CSOA put the health insurance premium contributions at 12%, up from 5% in the contract that expired September 16.

Musicians claim that the premium figures form an incomplete picture of health care costs since it doesn’t include deductibles, co-pays, and procedures covered at less than 100 percent. When these factors are included, the musicians say they’re currently paying 10 percent of health care costs, a figure that will rise above 20 percent under the CSOA’s current proposal.

The musicians also claim that the CSOA is inflating the estimated rise in health care costs, which they say management stated would be 8.5 percent per year over the life of the proposed three-year contract. They feel this figure is too high based on the modest 0.6% annual growth in their health insurance costs over the past decade and the potential for curbed cost growth based on changes made by the Affordable Care Act.

The most important issue in all this is probably salary. The CSOA says the minimum base weekly salary would have begun at $2,795, slightly above the current mark of $2,785, and risen to $2,910 over the course of the proposed three-year contract. The musicians’ statement points out a voluntary 2.5 percent salary reduction carried out over two years of the last contract, and delves into details of the orchestra’s relatively positive financial state, which they feel can support higher salaries. They acknowledge that the CSOA ran a deficit of $950,000 in 2011 - the 2012 figure will reportedly be a $1.3 million deficit - but point out that musicians’ salaries and benefits “represented only 36 percent of the CSOA’s total expenses in 2011.”

The wage details seem to be less important than the ordinal place of CSO compensation relative to other U.S. orchestras. As Andrew Patner pointed out on WMFT this morning, the orchestra markets itself as the best in the world - a claim bolstered by critical acclaim that has, at the very least, pretty much universally identified the CSO as the best in the country - and the musicians feel that it makes sense to be paid as such.

Hackles have been raised, with each side claiming the other escalated the conflict to the point of work stoppage. Regardless of who was the culprit, it has escalated quickly, creating a contentious relationship between management and labor that has been amicable and cooperative for quite a while. The current PR war - which, by the way, the musicians were shockingly slow to enter into - indicates each side is entrenched, and there's a very real possibility that this dispute could drag on. The good news is that the CSOA reported that talks will resume this afternoon with a federal mediator, who has been involved in the negotiations since the begining. Keep your fingers crossed.