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Chicago Symphony Ends Its Longest Strike With Pension Change

By Michael Cooper, New York Times

The longest strike in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 128-year history ended Saturday, when the orchestra’s musicians and board agreed to a new contract that will shift the players from their defined-benefit pension to a defined-contribution plan, similar to a 401(k).

The proposed change to the pension plan was the major sticking point in a musicians’ strike that lasted nearly seven weeks. The deal was brokered with the help of Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who had called the players’ union and the orchestra’s management to his office on Friday to try to break the stalemate.

The orchestra’s management had said that the existing pension plan, which guaranteed the players a set amount in retirement, had grown too costly. The players countered that the proposed alternative, in which the orchestra would put a set amount of money into individual retirement accounts, would shift investment risk to the musicians.

The two sides came up with a compromise. The orchestra’s management said that when current players switch to the new defined-contribution plan and agree to invest their retirement accounts prudently, the orchestra will guarantee that their benefits at retirement will be the same as what they would have earned under the old pension plan, which is being frozen.

That guarantee will not be available to new players: Those hired after July 1, 2020, will immediately move into the new plan, in which 7.5 percent of their base salary will be placed into retirement accounts.

The other major issue was wages. The new contract will include raises in each of the five years of the contract — of 2, 2, 2.5, 3.25 and 3.5 percent — which will bring the base salary to $181,272 in the final year, management said.

The 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 watched closely to see whether the Chicago players would succeed in protecting theirs.

The musicians’ union said in a statement that the new deal “preserves guaranteed minimum retirement benefits for current musicians and commits the parties to study options for providing retirement security for new hires.” In the past, unions have been loathe to accept contract changes that would protect current workers at the expense of new hires, fearing that such deals would create two tiers of workers in the same orchestra.

The strike was also notable for the unusual involvement of the orchestra’s revered music director, Riccardo Muti, since conductors usually avoid seeming to take sides in labor disputes. But before the strike began, 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 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.”

Helen Zell, the chairwoman of the orchestra’s board, said in a statement that the new agreement “ensures that the musicians receive the outstanding compensation they deserve” while securing the orchestra’s “long-term financial sustainability through the retirement plan transition.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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