Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How often do negotiations take place with the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for a new contract?

Contract negotiations typically take place every three years.

2. Is this the first time the musicians of the CSO have gone on strike?

No. Since 1970, there have been six strikes undertaken by the musicians of the CSO. The current is the seventh. Seven of the last 17 negotiations have included a work stoppage.

3. What is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA)?

Incorporated in 1890 as The Orchestral Association, the CSOA is the governing body of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Negaunee Music Institute and Symphony Center Presents. It also owns and operates the Symphony Center complex including Orchestra Hall, Grainger Ballroom, Buntrock Hall and the CSOA administrative offices.

4. Is the organization a not-for-profit?

Yes, it is registered as a 501(c)3 charitable organization in the State of Illinois.

5. Are the CSOA’s Board of Trustees volunteers?

Yes, every CSOA Trustee is a volunteer, elected to a three-year term. Trustees may serve four terms before rotating off the Board or becoming Life Trustees.

6. Are the Trustees also donors to the CSOA?

Yes, the Trustees, cumulatively, donate over $11 million to the organization annually and are responsible for soliciting another $5 million in gifts every year for the organization. Trustees also make significant commitments to the organization’s Endowment Fund.

7. Is the CSOA offering a fair contract to the musicians?

Yes. The CSOA currently supports one of the best contracts for symphonic musicians in the U.S.:

  • • Wages: With a minimum annual salary in the 2017/2018 season of $159,016, CSO musicians were paid 3.6% more than their counterparts in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 8.3% more than the New York Philharmonic, 17.5% more than the Cleveland Orchestra and 22.9% more than the Philadelphia Orchestra—the traditional “Big 5” U.S. orchestras. Furthermore, the average CSO salary in 2017/2018 was $187,500 and the average total compensation from all CSO work was $209,000;
  • • Seniority Pay: After working for five years in the CSO, each musician receives additional pay for years of service. The CSO rates are the highest in the U.S. For example, a CSO member with 25 or more years of service is paid an additional $16,000 per year;
  • • Paid Time Off: With a minimum of 12 paid weeks off every year, CSO musicians have the most generous paid time off benefit in the U.S.;
  • • Work Load: The CSOA can schedule a CSO musician to work a maximum of 296 services (rehearsals or concerts) per year, while in other top U.S. orchestras, this number ranges from 326 to 344.

The CSOA’s current offer retains the best-in-class seniority and paid time off, further enhances working conditions, and increases the minimum annual salary from $159,016 to $167,094 (5%) over the three years of the new contract. As such, the CSO musicians would retain a higher salary level than their peers in Boston, New York, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The CSO musicians are seeking an increase from $159,016 to $178,870 (12.5%) over the same period.

NEW: Read about the CSOA's last, best and final offer for CSO musicians submitted April 7>>

8. Why isn’t the CSOA matching the annual minimum salaries of the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic?

The cost of living in San Francisco and Los Angeles is significantly higher than in Chicago, particularly with respect to the cost of housing, which is 132% higher in San Francisco and 55% higher in Los Angeles*. For this reason, the Los Angeles Philharmonic instituted a weekly housing allowance to be paid in addition to minimum salary; the San Francisco Symphony responded to this by incorporating the housing allowance concept in its minimum weekly salary. As a result, the base salaries of these two West Coast orchestras surpass the annual minimum salary at the CSO (and significantly surpass the salary of other major U.S. orchestras). The annual minimum salary in San Francisco’s current contract increases to $184,000 over a four-year period. The CSOA should not be expected to increase the salary for CSO members to compensate for the extreme cost of living on the West Coast.

*Source: Council for Community and Economic Research

9. Is the CSOA proposing to take away the musicians’ health care?

No. The musicians are currently afforded a generous and comprehensive health care package by the CSOA including health, dental, life and long-term disability insurance. The musicians contribute between $30 and $70 per week (depending on their marital and family status) toward the cost of the health plan and make no contributions towards a dental plan, life or long-term disability. These payments represent approximately 13% of the CSOA’s total cost of health and dental care for the musicians. The Association pays the remaining 87% (over $2 million per year).

At the beginning of the current negotiations, the CSOA asked the musicians to work together to identify savings in the cost of health care through changes in coverage, increased deductibles, or to agree to an increase in the weekly contributions. The musicians rejected the initial or any subsequent proposal from the CSOA. The CSOA has since withdrawn its proposal for assistance in reducing health care costs. As a result, there will not be an increase in the musicians’ contribution toward health and dental insurance for 11 years, despite the rising costs of coverage.

10. Is the CSOA proposing to take away the musicians’ pension?

No. The CSOA’s proposal is to transition from a Defined Benefit pension plan to a Defined Contribution retirement plan, with the CSOA continuing to fund the full cost of these benefits. This type of transition has been carried out by thousands of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations across the country over the past 30 years, including most U.S. orchestras. Within the CSO’s comparator group of seven orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra have already made the transition to a Defined Contribution plan.

11. Why is it so important to the future of the CSOA and the CSO to change the retirement plan now?

The CSOA has proposed this type of transition in contract negotiations numerous times over the past 15 years. It is critically important to make the transition now, as the cost to fund the Defined Benefit plan has grown dramatically in recent years. Projections indicate the CSOA will have to make payments totaling more than $36 million into the plan over the next eight years. However, the IRS-required funding is highly volatile and could be as much as $64 million over the next 10 years. As a not-for-profit charitable organization, the size of these payments and the unpredictability of the amounts exposes the CSOA to great financial jeopardy. The annual costs of a Defined Contribution plan are lower, and completely predictable, while providing a sizable retirement benefit to CSO musicians.

Even though there are upfront costs to make the transition to a Defined Contribution plan, the CSOA is willing to make an investment in the near term to stabilize the financial health of the organization in the long term.

12. What is the CSOA’s retirement plan proposal?

The CSOA has proposed that all current members of the Orchestra would retain the benefits they have earned in the Defined Benefit Plan for the rest of their lives. Many musicians have already earned the maximum allowable benefit. On top of what each musician has earned in the Defined Benefit plan, the CSOA would create a Defined Contribution plan, and the CSOA would deposit every year into each musician’s account, tax-deferred until retirement, an amount of money valued at 7.5% of the annual minimum salary. No matching funds would be required to be paid by the musicians. These funds would be invested at the direction of the musicians who would be offered professional independent investment advice.

In addition, to make the transition more robust, based on age and years of service the CSOA would deposit into each musician’s account an amount of money valued at an additional 1% to 10% of the annual minimum salary for the first three years of the plan. In other words, most musicians would receive funds valued at 17.5% of their base salary per year into their account (approximately $28,000 per year for the first three years of the plan).

In addition to the above, for musicians who joined the CSO at a relatively later age and therefore have fewer potential years of service until retirement, a lump sum payment would be made to their account to further boost their retirement account balance. New musicians joining the Orchestra would go directly into the Defined Contribution plan.

For all current and future musicians, as the annual minimum salary increases, so will the CSOA’s payments into their Defined Contribution accounts, as the payment is based on 7.5% of the annual minimum salary.

NEW: Read about the CSOA's last, best and final offer for CSO musicians submitted April 7>>

13. Will musicians be required to make contributions to the proposed Defined Contribution plan to receive retirement benefits?

No. The Association will make the payments outlined above with no requirement for the musicians to contribute any of their own funds to the Defined Contribution plan. However, at their choosing, musicians can continue or begin to direct some of their own funds into a separate tax-deferred retirement plan (e.g. a 401(k) or 403(b) plan) for additional retirement security.

14. Will the Association’s proposed Defined Contribution plan provide a significant and appropriate retirement benefit for the musicians?

Yes. The proposed Defined Contribution plan projects that all current and future members of the Orchestra will receive a retirement benefit that is as good as or better than the current Defined Benefit plan. Additional benefits of the proposed Defined Contribution plan include flexibility on how to take the benefit at retirement including conversion to an annuity. Upon a musician's passing, 100% of the plan balance would be paid to the beneficiaries of the musician's choice. Under the current Defined Benefit plan, only a surviving spouse or domestic partner is eligible to receive a 50% survivor benefit.

15. Does the current contract offer represent a threat to the CSO in terms of attracting qualified musicians to play in the Orchestra?

No. The outstanding reputation of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now in its 128th season, continues to attract highly skilled musicians when positions in the Orchestra become available. Auditions for open positions in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra attract hundreds of applicants from the U.S. and abroad. With the overall CSO compensation and working condition package, including a Defined Contribution retirement plan, the CSO will remain extremely attractive to prospective musicians.

16. Is it true that the CSOA only spends 1/3 of its annual operating budget on the Orchestra?

Last year, the CSOA spent approximately 38% of its annual operating budget—close to $28 million—on Orchestra salaries and benefits. As it should be, this is the single largest cost category in the CSOA’s annual operating budget. This percentage figure is in line with other major U.S. orchestras, even those that don’t operate their own concert halls or offer a presenting series such as Symphony Center Presents.

The balance of the budget is spent on additional artistic elements such as guest conductors and soloists, the Music Director, Chicago Symphony Chorus, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, as well as stagehands, music purchase and rental, tours, the operation and upkeep of Orchestra Hall and Symphony Center, educational activities, recordings, radio broadcasts, fundraising, advertising and promotion of concerts, administrative staff, etc.—all of which is undertaken in direct support of the activities of the musicians of the Orchestra and building future audiences.

17. Why have the current negotiations with the musicians continued for 11 months without a resolution?

While negotiations for a new contract take place routinely every three years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) and Chicago Federation of Musicians (CFM) union recognized that the current negotiations could require additional time to review thoroughly and discuss a proposed change in the retirement benefits for the musicians of the CSO. The parties mutually agreed to begin negotiations in April 2018. They also agreed to extend the current contract past the original expiration deadline of September 16, 2018, to allow for further discussions on the topics at hand. While the parties have come to a mutual agreement on more than 35 changes to the contract, the parties remain apart on the issue of salary and retirement benefits.

18. Why have all CSOA-presented events been canceled or postponed during the strike (including Symphony Center Presents concerts [Jazz, Piano, Orchestra, Chamber Music Series], Civic Orchestra of Chicago concerts, rentals, etc.)?

The Chicago Federation of Musicians (CFM) requested that its Members and any other musicians, whether part of the Orchestra or not, refrain from participating in any CSOA activities.

With the CSO musicians picketing outside of Symphony Center and legally able to do so at any location where the CSOA makes presentations, the CSOA would not ask guest artists and audiences to cross a picket line.

19. What can I do to help the situation?

We understand a strike can be an emotional time for all involved. We are all eager to hear the great CSO performing on stage at Orchestra Hall and in communities across the city. While the positions of the musicians or the CSOA might make you contemplate your ongoing generosity for the organization, we need your support now more than ever. With it, when the strike is over, the music can continue, the musicians' contract can be supported and the CSOA can be fiscally healthy today and well into the future. Your patience and understanding are gratefully appreciated.