Chicago Symphony Musicians Vote to End Orchestra’s Longest Strike

The longest strike in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 128-year history neared an end on Saturday, when its musicians voted to approve a new labor agreement that was brokered with the help of Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel. The mayor had called the players’ union and the orchestra’s management to his office on Friday to try to break the nearly seven-week stalemate.

Few details of the new five-year agreement were immediately disclosed. The orchestra’s board was planning a meeting Saturday evening to vote on the deal.

The musicians went on strike largely over their pensions. The orchestra’s management had proposed freezing the existing defined-benefit pension plan, which guaranteed the players a set amount in retirement. Saying that that plan had grown too costly, management proposed moving to a defined-contribution plan, similar to a 401(k), in which the orchestra would put a set amount of money into individual retirement accounts for the players, who would bear the investment risk.

The ensuing strike attracted the attention of orchestras nationwide, which have been under pressure to curb expenses, especially during contract negotiations with their unions. While defined-benefit pensions have grown rarer in the private sector, they are still the norm among the nation’s leading orchestras. So musicians from around the country are awaiting details of the agreement to see whether the Chicago players succeeded in protecting theirs.

The musicians’ union said in a statement that the new deal would increase the players’ salaries by 13.25 percent over the term of the contract and that the deal “preserves guaranteed minimum retirement benefits for current musicians and commits the parties to study options for providing retirement security for new hires.” But it did not immediately provide fuller details.

The unusual involvement of the orchestra’s revered music director, Riccardo Muti, was also notable given that conductors usually avoid seeming to take sides in labor disputes. Before the strike, Mr. Muti wrote to the orchestra’s board and management, saying “I am with the musicians,” and he later appeared with the players on the picket line.

While Mr. Muti publicly insisted that he simply wanted the management and the board to “listen more carefully to the needs of musicians who represent one of the greatest orchestras in the world,” the symbolism of his actions was hard to miss. He is scheduled to return to the orchestra’s podium this week, which added pressure on both sides to reach an agreement.

Steve Lester, a bassist in the orchestra who was the chairman of the musicians’ negotiating committee, said in a statement that “after about a year of negotiations, we are victorious in our efforts by protecting and maintaining our secure retirement and gaining lost ground on our annual salaries.” The orchestra’s management was expected to issue a statement after the board’s meeting.

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