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Billionaires Against Funding Symphony Musicians

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By Kevin Gosztola

Summer is a time for music festivals. Anyone living near an urban center, or even a smaller city with music programs, will likely be able to spend an evening in a park listening to music. Yet, like many workers, musicians increasingly face threats to their wages and pension plans.

In most instances, management essentially issues an ultimatum: accept the contract offered or scheduled concert series may have to be canceled.

Symphony orchestras in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco have each mounted strikes within the past decade.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra ended a strike on April 29 that lasted nearly seven weeks. Members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians garnered support from the San Francisco Symphony in March, when they were scheduled to perform in Chicago.

Cast and crew from “Hamilton” and “A Bronx Tale,” two shows playing in Chicago, “Chicago Fire,” a television show, and Second City stood in solidarity with musicians. Several Democratic representatives in Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voiced support as well.

Renowned conductor and CSO music director Riccardo Muti backed the musicians. He urged management to “understand and listen more carefully to the needs of musicians who represent one of the great orchestras of the world.”

The CSO musicians even put on a series of free concerts in multiple venues throughout the city as a show of appreciation for their supporters throughout the city.

A major sticking point was the fact that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association insisted the musicians give up the defined benefit pension plan they have had for decades. The CSO Board viewed it as “irresponsible” to keep the plan going.

However, Stephen Lester, a double bassist with the orchestra and chair of the negotiating committee, contended, “We don’t believe this is a lack of resources or a failure of our orchestra in any respect,” and also said, “We have a $300 million endowment, a $60 million investment fund. The question is why can’t this work?”

The CSO Board did not find a way to work because they do not believe in spending money on workers. Labor costs cut into the bottom line.

So, in one of his last acts as Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel assumed the role of arbiter in the contract negotiations. Emanuel not only succeeded in ending negotiations for management, but he also let management threaten to cancel shows if the musicians did not accept the offer on the table.

When all was said and done, the five-year contract the union accepted was barely different from the offer rejected before the strike.

Emanuel served the billionaire class by bringing an end to the strike, some of the elites who have funded his election campaigns. For example, the chair of the CSO Board is Helen Zell, who is the wife of Sam Zell. He owns a controlling share of the Tribune Company and is a real estate investor. Both contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Emanuel.

Upon becoming a owner of the Tribune Company, Zell slashed thousands of jobs and reduced resources for the newspapers and television stations the company controls. He ensured management would impose the same kind of austerity his wife inflicted upon the CSO.

Sadly, the Chicago School of Economics is followed by many trustees on boards that allegedly foster philanthropy through their support of the arts.

The Pittsburgh Symphony went on strike in 2016 and ended up having to accept significant concessions—a 7 percent pay cut in the first years of the contract. They lost their defined pension plans.

To secure a 4.5 percent pay raise, in 2013, the San Francisco Symphony had to pay more for their health insurance.

“In 2012,” according to Reverb, “musicians in the Minneapolis Orchestra were locked out by management, after they refused to take pay cuts of up to 30 or 40 percent. The lockout lasted for 488 days, leading to the loss of an entire season of performances, their music director, and a host of players.”

The concessions the musicians were forced to accept meant “the remaining musicians [would not] reach their 2012 pay again until 2020.”

Billionaire trustees and the politicians who chum around with them believe in funding the arts for their highbrow entertainment. They are in it for the profits from tickets sold at inflated prices. They don’t believe in funding the artists, who make such cultural experiences possible.

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