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The 17-Day Blunder

Who won the Symphony strike?



By now, most artistically literate Chicagoans know the basic facts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strike of 1991: that executive director Henry Fogel and his board of trustees demanded that the musicians pay a portion of their health-insurance premiums, and that the players went on strike instead, forcing the cancellation of ten concerts, including the inaugural concert of new music director Daniel Barenboim. The strike was settled after 17 days. Not all the issues were.

"We are among the highest-paid musicians in the country," says Donald Koss, tympanist and president of the players' committee of the CSO. "But though I say it as modestly as I can, nobody plays as well as we do as consistently as we do. And we intend to remain in the forefront of the world's orchestras." The stocky Koss, who's known to concertgoers for his vividly expressive face, has been a member of the CSO since 1963. Colleagues describe him variously as "a good guy, bright and conscientious," "straightforward," "a man who can see management's side," and "a born leader."

To Henry Fogel--who came here from Washington, D.C., six years ago and has enjoyed a reputation as a good manager and a friend of the musicians--the issue was strictly budgetary and financial: "Health insurance has become too large a part of our budget."

To Koss, it was much more than that. Health insurance is a hard-won benefit, and the loss of even part of it here would have an impact on orchestras all over the country. "Our list of demands was not out of line--it really boils down to not giving up anything we currently have and getting a little bit more." He also thinks that keeping existing benefits is critical to the continued success of the orchestra. "We want to hang on to our good players. You know, the Met orchestra has stolen three CSO players in the last few years. We don't want that to happen again. James Levine is a real orchestra builder, and he wants the best people he can get. He can offer them things the CSO can't--the advantages of New York, for one thing. And the Met has benefits we don't have, like a much better pension plan. The last thing we're going to do is start giving away our benefits."

But that's what Koss and his colleagues contend Henry Fogel wanted the musicians to start doing. Fogel counters that costs had gotten out of hand. Neither side would yield.

The Orchestral Association is the official name of management at the CSO, the name on the tax returns. In fiscal 1990 the Orchestral Association's six highest paid individuals were Sir Georg Solti ($513,333--not so very much, considering his duties and international status); Henry Fogel ($208,725); the coconcertmasters Samuel Magad ($129,396) and Ruben Gonzalez ($128,878); Christopher Dunworth, vice president for development ($128,750); and William Hogan, stage manager ($121,743).

Base pay for the 109 orchestra members and the two music librarians, who are also covered by the contract, was $1,140 per week, or $59,280 per year. Some players receive more, and all get various bonuses and benefits.

Major portions of last year's budget also went to Columbia Artist Management ($567,677.78), ICM Artists ($561,050), and International Merchandising Corporation ($98,302.50), all of which represent solo artists. Next on the list of the highest-paid were Rollins Burdick Hunter, the CSO's insurance broker, and Mayer, Brown & Platt, the Orchestral Association's law firm.

The professional musician faces the eternal dichotomy of the artist versus the artisan, the one who enters through the front door versus the one who enters through the servants' entrance. No one would deny the artistic status of the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but they operate by union rules that could hardly be more strictly enforced if they were members of the Teamsters or the United Auto Workers.

The players get a ten-minute break for each hour of rehearsal. They generally have four rehearsals and three concerts a week, spending perhaps 20 hours at Orchestra Hall working. Concerts can run only two and a quarter hours--unless the Chicago Symphony Chorus is performing, when they can go an extra 15 minutes. Most players get ten weeks of paid vacation a year; some get more. They also get recording and broadcasting fees, and some earn money on the side by teaching or playing other gigs.

But the bare figures--which suggest a rather plush position--do not show all that the professional musician does. To be a professional instrumentalist or singer means delivering full measure intellectually, emotionally, and physically at every rehearsal and every performance. It means practicing for hours on one's own each week--to say nothing of the years spent studying and rehearsing, the money spent on lessons and instruments, on gaining the skills to go with the talent.

The question therefore becomes one of whether the claims of artistic excellence can keep up with modern economic realities.

There are two great truths about being a musician. One is that it's hard to make a living at it. The other is that a lot of exploitation awaits those who try. These truths may sometimes lead to overreactions on the part of those who represent the musicians.

The concept of the full-time musician is relatively recent. Until the last century or so, musicians were expected to combine their art with another ability; it was common to also work as a dancing master or carpenter. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in France, seeking his help in recruiting a clarinetist, an oboist, a French-horn player, and a bassoonist--who could double as a weaver, a stonecutter, a cabinetmaker, and a gardener. Even today it's rare to be a full-time musician; there are plenty of talented performers, but few jobs.

The American Federation of Musicians grew out of a number of fraternal groups in the late 19th century, proto-unions that banded together to assist one another--and to shut out competition, according to George Seltzer's history of the union, Music Matters.

The AFM became a fear-inspiring power under the rule of the appropriately named James Caesar Petrillo, a thuggish ex-trumpeter. ("If I was a good trumpet player, I wouldn't be here. I got desperate. I hadda look for a job. I went into the union business.") He warred against school bands as unfair competition for professional musicians and fought with everyone from the record companies to his own union members to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Petrillo, for whom the Grant Park band shell was named, joined the Chicago local in 1918, became vice president in 1919, and moved up to president in 1922, where he stayed until 1962. In 1940 he also became president of the entire union, and nothing musical went on in this country without his approval. Instrumentalists joined his union or they didn't work; he even organized musicians at hotels, restaurants, and radio stations. Those who wanted to hire musicians paid his rates and signed his contracts. His goons were not above throwing rocks through the windows of recalcitrant employers. Two Chicago detectives were assigned to protect him--and two bodyguards kept an eye on the detectives. His Chicago office was bulletproof. It wasn't just paranoia; Petrillo clashed with Al Capone over turf, and his house was once firebombed. For decades rumors circulated that Petrillo had mob connections. He strongly denied them, and it does seem more likely that he and the Mafia were rivals.

The "Chief's" main phobias were nonunion musicians, recordings, and germs; he customarily offered only his little finger for hand shaking. He believed that instrumentalists who made recordings were cutting their own throats, and he twice ordered strikes against the record companies (one of the strikes killed the big bands, which failed to survive a yearlong hiatus in recording). And he forbade the NBC radio network to broadcast a concert by the children's orchestra at the national summer music camp Interlochen, an action that resulted in reams of bad publicity for the AFM but that he never repented. "With children you always lose," he said. "But I was right. They took jobs away from professional musicians."

Petrillo's philosophy was to "spread the jobs around" to the greatest possible number of professional musicians. He wouldn't permit CSO members to play at Ravinia, which was a separate operation. He also forced contracts on the recording industry and Hollywood that reserved a percentage of their earnings for the union, which used the money to pay musicians for free concerts around the country. It sounded quite noble, but the musicians who did the recording work wanted to keep all of their earnings for themselves, and local union presidents seemed to end up with a suspiciously large number of the free gigs. This led to civil war within the union and eventually to Petrillo's retirement from the national post in 1958.

In 1962 the CSO rebelled against Petrillo as head of Chicago's Local Ten, filing an unfair-labor-practices complaint against him and the local. The players wanted to be on the contract-negotiating committee; Petrillo, who preferred to let officers of the local work out sweetheart deals with management, refused. That year he lost his first election in 44 years.

After him, the deluge.

Although the players had rebelled against him, Petrillo bequeathed a legacy of militance to the AFM. And though nearly 30 years later few remember the man, the militance remains. "I don't think the contract problems of symphony orchestras and opera companies in the last 20 years have been with the AF of M, but with the musicians themselves," says a veteran observer of the Chicago musical scene. "It's an issue between the players and the managements and boards. Petrillo did not want the center of power to shift from the union to the players. The players' committees began as an antiunion thing, because the union didn't represent them correctly. The orchestra committees truly represented the players. The problem is that for a half-century no one listened to them. Then they said, "Everything we've been waiting for for the last 50 years we want by October.' And they started shutting companies down all over the country." One result was a string of strikes at the CSO and a strike at Lyric Opera in 1967 that resulted in a dark season and almost finished the company. Elsewhere in the country, orchestras were closed down when their managements decided they could not or would not meet the demands.

But where Petrillo had been militant for the union, the players became militant for their own shops. Instead of jobs being "spread around," they went to fewer and fewer people. Ravinia has been the summer home of the CSO for years, and those who play in the Lyric Opera Orchestra are usually the people who play at Grant Park.

Jobs were disappearing anyway, and as performing opportunities continue to decline and new technology--like digital sampling and synthesizers--lessens the need for live musicians, the power of the AFM is likely to recede further. Once the union could dictate that venues employ union musicians; once it could prohibit union members from performing with nonmembers. Those days are gone. Today many younger players choose not to belong to the AFM--and they get away with it. The union is now in financial trouble, particularly in the smaller locals. Its only real clout remains in the important shops, such as those at the Lyric and the CSO.

"This whole negotiating process this time was very simple," says Donald Koss. "They came in with a major demand that we pay a large chunk of our medical premium. They said they would take a strike over it. They said it in August. No orchestra pays any part of the premium. They were trying to set a precedent. Why they started here is pretty obvious--Mr. Fogel is looked upon as a bellwether of orchestra managers. He was trying to show how tough he is and to set an example--and we were the example. He didn't care about the players, the subscribers, the new music director. He just wanted to look good to the other managers.

"His demand remained on the table until [the last day of the strike]. When he took the demand off the table, we had a settlement. There was some debate on salary, but only after the other issue was cleared up--we didn't even negotiate over it. He said he was trying to contain costs, but it's actually what the insurance industry calls 'cost shifting.'" Koss says the union negotiators agreed in August to switch to a Preferred Provider Option (PPO) plan, which cuts costs by setting up a network of doctors and hospitals who agree to lower fees in exchange for referrals; those who prefer to go to other doctors pay a higher percentage of the costs. "We said we would accept it, that they could structure the thing any way they wanted--but don't screw around with our current benefit plan. They wanted us to pay $50 a week in premiums, which would be like getting no raise.

"It's a very simple case of them trying to make a budget savings on the back of the orchestra. Only 42 cents of the budget dollar comes to the orchestra in salaries, pensions, and other benefits. They have a burgeoning bureaucracy at Orchestra Hall--there are now 82 members of the staff. The administration has grown 35 percent in the last five years. They're reaching the point where there's almost one person on management for every one in the orchestra."

Given those growing costs, Koss derides the board of trustees' claim that they want to be good stewards. "Good stewards should be looking at more than the amount of money they're spending on our medical benefits. They sent us all the wrong signals. They're hard-nosed businessmen--and they think they can run the orchestra like a business."

According to Koss, the orchestra was prepared to strike back in August, before negotiations even began. The members reaffirmed the strike vote--indicating their willingness to walk if necessary--the day before the contract expired. After the strike began, says Koss, they had a two-hour meeting. "We told them all the details. We told them it could go a long, long time. We took a secret ballot: continue to strike or end it. The orchestra was magnificent--they voted 91 to 3, with one abstention, to continue the strike."

Do players making at least $60,000 a year really expect sympathy from the general public, particularly given that very few people get away without making any contribution to their medical premiums? "We don't expect to have sympathy from the public," Koss says. "But we took this as a benefit instead of a raise back in the 60s. We took substantially lower raises over six years to pay for it. We're not gonna give it back."

"There were strikes at virtually every Chicago Symphony Orchestra negotiation from the early 70s until 1982, when there was a lockout," says Henry Fogel. "There were five [difficult] negotiations in a row before I came. I broke that pattern. We had two negotiations without a work stoppage. I think I have improved relations between management and the orchestra."

Yet in addition to his reputation as a good manager and a friend of the musicians Fogel has a reputation as a control freak, a man who has to be in charge of all the details. According to an Orchestra Hall source, Fogel had boasted to his fellow managers that he would "break the union"--a charge Fogel emphatically denies.

"The problem was pretty simple," he explains. "We found that we could not control the rapid escalation of health-care costs. We had put a Band-Aid on the problem two times in the past six years by changing [insurance] carriers. We were not able to do that this time. And it gets counterproductive anyway--you get a reputation as someone who is not going to be around for the long term. The board and I felt it was essential that we make an issue of it in this negotiation."

Did he anticipate any problems with the union over the issue? "There's no question that when you make an issue of something that's been an accepted benefit for many years you're going to have problems. I warned the board of trustees of the possibility that this would lead to a strike. We decided it was important enough.

"Last year we spent $700,000 on health-insurance premiums for the musicians alone. That's been escalating--and it's been predicted that it will continue to escalate--at a rate of 25 percent a year. So in the second year of this contract we'll be looking at $1,093,000. And you can't just look at this as the next three years--we're already looking ahead to the next negotiation. Six years from now we anticipate that the cost will be $2,670,000. You just can't have a large chunk of your budget going up 25 percent every year." This year's total budget is $31 million; Fogel estimates that in six years it will hit $45 million.

Health insurance is getting more expensive for everyone, but it's worse for musicians. "Insurance companies break people down into groups, and they include all 'entertainers' together--pop musicians, rock musicians, nightclub entertainers, classical musicians," Fogel points out. "And entertainers have a bad reputation that may have gotten worse in recent years. That hurts. And this is a small group, with an average age of 50, with a lot of specialized ailments that come with playing, for example, the violin--problems with the shoulders, with the neck, with tendinitis."

Jackie Springer of Mercer, Inc., a benefits consulting firm, was the Orchestral Association's adviser on the health-insurance issue. She says, "They have high costs because they're professionals. And as professionals, they demand a quality of care. If I'm a violin player and I hurt my hand, I'm going to demand the best care available, the best specialists--of course." She also notes, "Everybody always says, 'Oh, I don't use the plan that much.' But when you look at the records, they do. The question is, will everybody pay for it in contributions, or will those who use it pay for it in deductions and coinsurance?"

"We decided to try two approaches at the negotiations simultaneously, knowing that it would be very difficult to get both," says Fogel. "First we wanted to control the rate of growth with a PPO plan. The key to making a PPO work is having strong incentives to use those doctors, and strong disincentives not to use them."

Under the old plan, there was a $200 deductible for individuals and $400 for families; the insurance then picked up 80 percent of the costs until a $200 or $400 ceiling was reached, when the figure went to 100 percent. Under the PPO plan, the deductibles would be the same and 90 percent of costs would be picked up to a ceiling of $150 or $300, when the figure would again go to 100 percent. For non-PPO users, management proposed higher deductibles ($300 and $600) and 70 percent of costs to a higher ceiling.

That much might not have created too great a stir. But Fogel and the board of trustees also proposed that the musicians begin to make a contribution to the premiums. "We started high--at 20 percent--and then went down to zero the first year, 5 percent the second year, and 10 percent the third year of the contract. Finally we offered to put a cap on the amounts they would contribute: $210 for a single and $525 for a family in the second year, and $400 and $1,000 in the third year."

According to Fogel, the management negotiators received "signals" that the proposal to contribute to the premium and the percentages for non-PPO users were unacceptable. "They will say that they would have gone with the non-PPO side if we dropped the contribution. I don't think they sent those signals. I think they would not have accepted it. My own feeling is that they needed to see, unfortunately, that it was so serious to us that we would take a strike over it."

But the players' committee wondered if the issue was quite so simple.

Did the board of trustees' Personnel and Labor Relations Committee--which includes Charles Brumback, famed as the man who busted the typesetters' union at the Chicago Tribune--tell Fogel to come down hard on the insurance issue, or was that his idea? "The labor committee sets the guidelines," Fogel says. "We agreed that we could not continue the kind of insurance coverage we had in the past."

Most arts organizations--management and unions alike--pore over the contracts of their peers in other parts of the country, looking for language and agreements they can use in their own contracts (though Donald Koss denies that the players' committee does). Since the CSO is one of the country's premier orchestras, what is agreed to here will influence the requests and decisions of other orchestras from Boston to Los Angeles. So was Fogel carrying water for his peers at other orchestras? He vehemently denies it. "My father was a union typesetter. I believe in unions. One of the few times I got really angry and blew up at the bargaining table was when they accused me of trying to break the union."

He agrees that having the players pay part of their premiums would have set a precedent. "And there's no question that the orchestra didn't want to be the first to do that. But this contract is precedent-setting in other areas. We've hired more full-time string players than we ever put onstage. The purpose is to allow rotation--relief from the grind of playing every week. In our last negotiation we agreed to three extra string players; this year we added a fourth. That adds $100,000 each in salaries and benefits. If I were concerned about what the other managers think of me and us, I would never have agreed to that. I took heat from the other managers. The pension jumped too. They're not going to like that. But I don't negotiate for other orchestra managers. I am seen as very labor sensitive by my peers."

"In the industry, we sit up and take notice when an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony takes a work action," says Susan Franano, general manager of the Kansas City Symphony. "I certainly wasn't surprised to hear what the strike issue was--insurance is a subject that brings on a sense of apprehension among managers." But she doesn't believe there's anything to the theory of a conspiracy led by Henry Fogel. Last winter at the annual conference of orchestral managers, Fogel spoke at a special meeting on the subject of health insurance. But, says Franano, "He didn't say anything to that effect at that time, and it would seem to be a perfect venue."

There have also been accusations that some of Fogel's words and deeds before, during, and after the strike were motivated by personal antagonism toward Donald Koss, but Fogel denies the charge. "I don't think personality was an issue. It obviously wasn't all warm and fuzzy, but on the whole I thought the mood was constructive. I hugged with Don Koss when we finished the negotiations, and I hugged with him again after the first concert. I think the musicians--maybe Don--had to see that this issue would not go away."

"The trustees' concerns are that, although we have had modest--you might call them nominal--surpluses over the last five years, we're concerned about financial trends for the CSO in particular and symphony orchestras in general," says Richard L. Thomas, chairman of the Orchestral Association and president of First National Bank of Chicago. "We envision that government support is becoming harder to get and that private philanthropy is becoming harder to get. And we are encountering increased resistance on ticket prices. Meanwhile, our costs continue to grow inexorably--the costs of the orchestra, of staff, of guest artists, of utilities all continue to grow faster than the rate of inflation."

Since using endowment money was not a viable alternative, Thomas, Fogel, and the board of trustees set out to find areas where they could save money. "We started from the base that our orchestra is already the most highly compensated of any in the country and works the least hours of any in the country. We felt they should be well compensated, but we also felt we should be careful." Health insurance was chosen as a target, he says, because "it happened to be the most rapidly escalating part of our costs. But it turned into a matter of principle for the musicians."

Thomas says he was taken aback by the vehemence of the players, and disappointed that Barenboim's debut was marred. "The contrast between the behavior of our orchestra and New York's is quite striking--when New York had a new music director, they played without a contract."

Rumors of a conspiracy, that Henry Fogel was urged to "break" the union by his board of trustees, flew during the strike and after. They stem in part from what some instrumentalists call "the natural paranoia" of professional musicians, which made them suspicious of, for example, the presence of Charles Brumback, president and CEO of the Tribune Company, on the Personnel and Labor Relations Committee.

"I was not really directly involved in it--I wasn't available for meetings," says Brumback. "But the idea that we were involved in union busting is ludicrous. Just ludicrous. People are going to say there was some kind of conspiracy because of the problem we had [with the typesetters' union], but there's nothing to that."

"This strike was, in a way, more significant than any of the others, except the ones in the 60s and early 70s," says Thomas Willis, an associate professor and executive assistant to the dean at Northwestern University's music school. For years Willis watched the CSO's labor actions as a music critic for the Tribune; he stepped down in 1977 and is now at work on a history of the symphony that's due out next year. "For many reasons, the members of the orchestra and the Orchestral Association thought they had achieved a constructive detente. Both sides were badly misled about the strength of the other. And as a result this was a real strike--not a lockout or a one-day-at-a-time strike. I think it will influence the CSO's labor relations for years to come."

He also points out, "I think both sides were playing hardball. Anybody could perceive that this would be a tough one, but both sides thought they could win."

Willis thinks Fogel is a much better manager than the late John Edwards. "Henry has been the one who has said, 'Cooperate, cooperate.'" But he adds, "Probably some people in management, and some trustees, feel that the day of the trade union is over. I think it's the corporate-management people who produce the aggressiveness and not the bankers--people like Charles Brumback. He's a hard-line corporate labor person; his record speaks to that with the Tribune. But there's no conspiracy."

Did the musicians win? "They got a good deal out of it. The question is, did they get a better deal by losing ten concerts and losing so much public support? Fortunately, the public has a very short memory. But the Chicago Symphony already has marketing problems--with a new guy and a feeling across the country that Chicago's had its time on top and it's time for the New York Philharmonic to reclaim its birthright. New York is really very provincial in many ways, you know, and [the New York critical establishment] is already beating the drums for the reemergence of the Philharmonic." He says the strike, which canceled the hoopla of the 100th-anniversary celebration as well as Barenboim's debut, didn't help the orchestra's cause.

This was Pat Collins's second outing as the "second chair" lawyer for the players; her firm has represented the union for years. "Negotiations usually have kind of a surface cordial tone," she observes. "What was disturbing toward the end, to us, was that we felt that management had a certain clear agenda of items that may or may not have had anything to do with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra itself. They had concerns about setting precedents, concerns about how things looked--maybe to the board of trustees, maybe to other orchestras. It makes it hard to deal with something when you don't understand the motivation." She points out that the Saint Louis Symphony and the New York Philharmonic are now facing similar proposals to cut health-care benefits in their negotiations, which are still going on.

"It's almost like concession bargaining at the outset, not collective bargaining," she says, adding that she finds it intriguing that management was willing to come up with lots of extra dollars for the players, as long as they were hidden in bonuses, in extra pay for new concerts, in "experience increments"--everywhere, in fact, except in the form of wage increases, where they'd be easily visible to the trustees, the general public, and the management and players of other orchestras.

Stuart Bernstein, a partner with Mayer, Brown & Platt, has been the Orchestral Association's attorney since 1969, guiding them through eight negotiations. "I get a certain satisfaction in dealing with [the musicians]--they're intelligent, they bring in complex issues. There's quite a challenge in dealing with them. It's satisfying, in a professional sense. That's not to say I have fun dealing with strikes!"

This strike was different from the others, he says. "The issues in the other strikes were more sharply defined--they were primarily salary and fairly typical kinds of issues. This was different, because the orchestra considered the health issue a matter of principle. That made it hard to settle."

Bernstein has negotiated contracts with a variety of unions, including the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers, and airline-pilot and chemical-worker unions. "The AFM is unique. I might compare them to the airline pilots--both groups are not sure if they're professionals or workingmen. They're highly educated and sometimes embarrassed to take part in the rough-and-tumble of negotiations--especially walking picket lines. There's an ambiguity in how they see themselves, as well as in how we treat them. It's a general problem."

Illustrative of the sort of misunderstandings that can arise between musicians and management is the saga of the closets. One of the union's complaints was that at the same time the Orchestral Association was trying to cut their health benefits it was willing to spend $100,000 on closets in the pricey private boxes in Orchestra Hall. Donald Koss suggested this demonstrated management's skewed priorities.

"We did do renovations in the boxes, and they did include closets," says Tom Hallett, director of finance for the Orchestral Association. "But they're not for the comfort of the patrons--although when you pay that much for a box, you're entitled to some comforts. The main reason for adding them was acoustics, the acoustical problems in the hall. For years there have been complaints that on some parts of the stage you can't hear the sound coming back and determine how loud or soft you are compared to others. The sound went into the boxes--and died in the coats. So we had acoustical experts through to figure out what to do. They had half walls built with acoustical panels in the boxes and closet doors--so the music will bounce out and help the orchestra. It looks nicer, but it also made the boxes smaller. The six seats in each box are kind of scrunched up, so some of the box holders will actually say they were done a disservice."

Hallett puts the cost of the box renovations between $80,000 and $90,000 and notes that a number of other acoustical changes were also made. "The others were aimed toward the audience, but the box changes were aimed almost entirely at the orchestra."

Arnold Brostoff has been a violinist in the CSO for 27 years. Unlike virtually all of his colleagues, he opposed the strike. Though many of his complaints seem specious--that orchestra members were not given enough information to decide on whether or not to strike, for example--he does bring up two good points.

"I don't oppose strikes in general. I just opposed certain aspects of this strike. I felt we could work and negotiate--you always have the option to walk out later. It bothered me greatly that we lost our first concert. It was Barenboim's first concert as music director. The press had been invited from around the world for a very major event, the orchestra was being spotlighted. You can't bring that back again. Feelings were hurt on both sides."

Brostoff admits to being a minority of one, and a pretty unpopular minority at that. But he would like to see negotiations become less confrontational. "We can't have our SOBs going up against their SOBs anymore. It takes too much time and brings too much hostility. Instead of threatening a divorce every three years, we should learn from Japanese working methods. Confrontation doesn't help anybody."

"Arnold Brostoff is always one standing by himself," says Donald Koss. "We didn't feel it was in our best interests to do the opening concert. It's a hard and cruel thing to say, but you're in an economic war. If they won't settle when you've got an important concert, why would they settle later? We told them way up front, in July, that we would not play if we did not have a contract. And we showed good intent by rehearsing for the first concert, and by playing the free concert at Grant Park. The strike is our ultimate tool, and we don't want to use it. But it's the only weapon in our arsenal."

Koss does not foresee an end to the kind of negotiation that resulted in a strike. "Our union has no dictator at the top, and the rank and file of the orchestra have strong expectations. We're in a peculiar position because we're both artists and workingmen, and we should never lose sight of it. I never forget that I get a weekly paycheck, just like any guy who works in a factory."

Nevertheless, he admits, "I think we all love music enough that we'd do it even if we didn't get paid. But that's our vocation. That's what we do for a living."

How will the new CSO contract affect other orchestral negotiations around the country? "That's terribly hard to predict," says Catherine French, chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, based in Washington, D.C. "The effects of negotiations and work stoppages are very personal. Each situation is different."

Yet she recognizes that the underlying pressures are the same. "Symphony orchestras are in very difficult times financially--and they're not unique. The current economy is making things very hard for not-for-profits. It's affecting income from the philanthropic community and earnings from the discretionary and disposable income of the [patron] community. As for government support, federal money has not grown at all in the past decade. As [orchestral] budgets have grown considerably, state governments that are in trouble have been cutting arts budgets along with all other budgets." The merger mania of the past decade has also been a negative, French suggests: when one bank eats another bank, one of the results is that where there were two corporate benefactors there now is only one.

"Looking at audience numbers, there's no dramatic growth, but they seem to be holding their own. More people are going to concerts, but they're going to fewer concerts. Instead of one person buying 12 concerts, you've got two people going to 6." To survive and flourish, she says, symphony orchestras must build their outreach programs, take their music into the community. "And that takes time, a lot of time, to pay off."

Clearly the players gained financially with the CSO's new three-year contract. Base salaries will rise by 4.4 percent in the first year, to $1,190 per week; 5 percent in the second year, to $1,250; and 4 percent in the third year, to $1,300. Major increases in seniority-based payments were also included, and the pension will go from the current $28,000 a year to $40,000, a hefty leap. More bonuses, including a onetime $1,000 bonus to each orchestra member, are scheduled for 1992. A new five-concert Saturday-night series will also be added in 1992, with extra pay for participants.

The players will not have to pay any part of their health-insurance premiums unless they choose not to use PPO providers, in which case they will pay a deductible of $250 for individuals and $500 for families as well as a percentage of their costs up to a maximum of $700 for individuals and $1,400 for families. Essentially, the players seem to have got what they wanted; their deductibles are higher, but even those not using the PPO plan got a good deal. Management has saved itself money by instituting a PPO plan and by insisting on higher deductibles--precedents that may help it in the next round of negotiations.

According to a news release from the Orchestral Association, "The total cost of this settlement to The Association represents an annualized increase of 4.9% over the next three years."

It's too early to say how much the strike really cost the Orchestral Association, says finance director Tom Hallett. "We lost close to $1 million of our budgeted ticket sales. Virtually all of that we had already received from subscriptions. The question is, what happens to that? The subscribers have three options: they can contribute [the money], they can ask for a refund, or they can accept tickets for alternative concerts. If they choose to contribute or take replacements, we really don't lose. If they ask for refunds, that's a different story." The median price for tickets this season is $30 each.

"Lots of people are asking for their money back, but they're going to be the ones asking right away. We've sent out a letter detailing the options. No response generally will mean a contribution."

Does Hallett think more patrons will ask for refunds than after past strikes? Probably, he says. "Ticket prices are much higher now than they were in 1982," the year of the last strike. "We're in a recession now, which we weren't in 1982." To make it psychologically easier for subscribers to write off the price of their tickets, those who elect not to take a refund will get a special limited-edition compact disc as a reward.

If management loses on tickets, it has saved on orchestra salaries--Hallett estimates about $300,000--and on minor expenses associated with presenting concerts.

"We're still not in a position to calculate the impact," he says. "We're hoping to break even on it."

So who really won?

Morris Kaplan, a member of the board of trustees and head of the Personnel and Labor Relations Committee, says, "With union negotiations, things can come out one of three ways: one side wins, both sides lose, or both sides win. I think here it was really a win-win situation."

Pat Collins, the players' committee lawyer, says, "There's no question but that the union came out the winner. The union really showed its strength and its unity and its determination. And they're finally getting paid what they're worth as the greatest musicians in the world."

Thomas Willis, the former Tribune critic, says, "The orchestra won its principle and got fair money." But, he adds, "I can't say that in the long haul they won. This issue will be right back next time."

Donald Koss says, "Nobody wins a strike."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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