The events of the past couple of weeks leading up to the unfortunate yet necessary strike by the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) have left many people wondering why this happened and how could it have been avoided.
Before proceeding any further and exploring those two questions, it’s important for me to disclose that I am a longtime elected board member of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, the union that represents this orchestra. But I offer these thoughts as my own and not on behalf of my union or its officers or the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
And before exploring the how and why of this situation, it’s important to clear up a few egregious misconceptions that came out in the press once the strike began. The management of the CSO made a conscious choice to essentially paint a picture of greed and arrogance on the part of the musicians.
Nothing can be further from the truth.
What failed to be properly or responsibly reported was that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is regarded by many people around the world as the finest concert orchestra on the planet today. And that’s because the women and men who play in this orchestra are chosen over many years by blind audition from thousands of candidates in a global pool of talent based upon their ability to perform on their instruments at the highest level.
In the world of orchestra music, the CSO has the sports equivalent of Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, Gabby Douglas and Peyton Manning playing for them. They are the best of the best. All-Stars in literally every chair. Thousands of musician candidates attempt to even get an audition for just one of the chairs that occasionally open up in this world-class orchestra.
But in the press the CSO management saw it fit to play up the fact that members of the orchestra on average earn between 143K – 170K annually. Well, when you are one of the 4 or 5 best clarinet or French horn players on the planet it seems that this level of disrespect and rogue behavior on the part of the management is irresponsible and, sadly, unforgivable. And this level of compensation is a sad commentary on where we place our economic value in society. But that’s an entirely different conversation…
I’ve owned and operated a business all of my adult life, actually starting from the time I was 14. And I understand fair market value for live musical services both from the standpoint of what you can charge in the open market and what should be paid to performers. And even though the skill level of many of the CSO members is at the equivalent of the skill levels of the top athletes that I mentioned, we know that their compensation will never come close to those multi-million dollar sports contracts. So blasting them for being the best on the planet while earning between 143K and 170K seems absolutely unconscionable.
When you travel out west people often say, “don’t miss the Grand Canyon…it’s one of those things that doesn’t disappoint”. The same can be said for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The absolute beauty and perfection of each and every performance gives us a glimpse into the minds and hearts of great composers and with each performance, helps to remind us of the things that make life worth living.
On a talk radio show a few years back, the host asked callers to call in if they have lived most of their lives in the Chicagoland area and had never gone swimming in Lake Michigan. The host, as well as the listeners, received a large surprise when many of the callers had indicated that not only had they never been in Lake Michigan, but they had never even SEEN Lake Michigan. Citing the “big city”, crime, violence, parking, etc. many individuals never even thought of coming into Chicago.
That same conversation could sadly have been directed towards individuals who have lived in Chicago their entire lives and never experienced a live performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. To have this world-renowned orchestra right in our own backyard and for the majority of our population to never experience a performance seems almost criminal…
So why did the strike need to happen? Because like most conflicts of this nature one side decides to test the mettle of the other side to see if they will blink. And walking the orchestra to the edge of the cliff just before a concert was to take place seems very much what the management was trying to do. They just failed to realize that the commitment and resolve of the musicians was far greater than they anticipated. When good faith leaves the room, there is no choice but to take the appropriate action. We jumped off the cliff.
How can this be prevented? That’s a much tougher question. We are seeing a growing chasm between those who put up the capital for business and those who have the talent to turn the capital investment into profit. And while I do believe that there are two sides to most stories, the growing distance between those sides in Labor & Management in this country does not bode well for our national economy, unemployment or the economic recovery we all so dearly need.
But in the final analysis it all seems to really come down to this one point: listening closely to one another. Listening closely seems to be the key. Both at the negotiating table and especially in the concert hall…