Chicago Symphony Orchestra Musicians on Strike

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The musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike Saturday, just ten days before a scheduled three-night run at Carnegie Hall, which includes the hall's opening night gala.

The musicians' five-year contract had expired at midnight last Sunday, but they had previously agreed to begin the 2012-13 season this week, as they continued the contract negotiations that began in July. That plan fell apart on Saturday, however, leading the CSO to cancel a performance scheduled for Saturday night.

"The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is extremely disappointed that the musicians have decided to strike," said CSO president Deborah Rutter 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."

Stephen Lester, a bassist in the Chicago Symphony and chair of the negotiating committee for the musicians, said in a phone interview Sunday that the musicians authorized the strike in a "virtually unanimous" vote on Thursday. He accused the management of bargaining in bad faith by asking for concessions. "They said that their only chief desire was to save costs," he said. "We questioned the validity of that in view of their economic condition, which is quite strong. Tickets, revenue and fundraising are at their all-time high for the last 25 years."

The contract would have provided musicians with a minimum base weekly salary of $2,795 in the first year, $2,835 in the second and $2,910 in the third, the organization said. The previous weekly base minimum salary is $2,785. The orchestra also proposed raising musicians' contributions to their health plan to 12 percent from five percent under the last contract. 

WQXR is scheduled to broadcast the Chicago Symphony's Oct. 3 concert at Carnegie Hall, which is to feature Orff's Carmina Burana.

The potential impact of the strike is significant. Carnegie is to host a gala dinner after the Oct. 3 concert at the Waldorf-Astoria for which Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is the honorary chairman and tickets start at $1,500 a plate. In addition, the orchestra is slated to appear in Ann Arbor, MI on Thursday, and on a two-city Mexico tour on Oct. 8 and 10. No further talks between management and musicians are scheduled.

The strike, which is the orchestra's first since 1991, comes just days after Chicago's teachers returned from the picket lines.