Chicago’s world renowned Lyric Opera Orchestra went out on strike Tuesday morning 9 October 2018, and musicians began picketing outside of the Civic Opera House. The last strike by the orchestra musicians and related unions at the opera was 50 years ago in 1967. The seventy-four musicians on strike are members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians union (CFM), part of the AFL-CIO’s American Federation of Musicians.
The orchestra had been rehearsing without a contract since last month. The orchestra played the season-opening performance of Puccini’s La Boheme on Saturday night, but negotiations broke down Monday with the company on a new contract. The musicians walked out two days before the second scheduled performance of La Boheme.
Lyric Opera reached agreements on Monday with two of the three unions that had been working without contracts. The company announced that it had reached agreements on new contracts with the local unions of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), which represents the Lyric Opera Chorus.
The IATSE contract calls for a reduced crew sizes for all shows and unspecified reductions in weeks of the opera season. While deals were not released on the AGMA contract, sources said a previous Lyric proposal required further reductions in the core chorus as well as fewer weeks in the opera season. The next scheduled performance is a matinee of Puccini’s La Boheme on Thursday.
Lyric Opera management, and general director Anthony Freud, appeared wholly unprepared for the well-coordinated union strike activity against the company and by Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians when they walked out on strike Tuesday morning.
The strike caused the cancellation of two performances: Thursday’s matinee of La Boheme and Saturday’s opening of Idomeneo, as well as backstage tours and several ancillary events.
After being slow to respond to the charges by the Chicago Federation of Musicians members yesterday, the company appeared to regroup Wednesday morning with a more detailed statement emailed to media members and posted in part on its website.
One dismaying bit of news to come out is the company acknowledging that its opening-night radio broadcasts have been dropped due to a lack of sponsorship. The issue arose because Lyric refused to pay musicians’ broadcast fees under union rules when the performances were not being broadcast cutting into the musicians pay.
Re compensation, Lyric said that the average musician salary is $82,500 annually for 22 weeks of work of 20 hours a week. The company added that they continue to pay 92% of musician health care benefits as well as contributing to the musicians’ pension program.
The company stated that in the 2016-17 season, it paid $1.8 million to musicians, plus benefits, for non-working weeks due to a shortened season. As the statement put it, “Lyric has made a fair offer to the musicians of the orchestra. We are committed to paying an excellent wage for work that is done but we can no longer pay for work that is not done.”
The company also strongly defended high pay of non-musicians in its fund-raising and development, and marketing departments, areas which the musicians had derided as ineffective and outdated.
The musicians’ union firmly disputed Freud’s statement of an average salary of $82,500 per orchestra member in the Lyric contract offer, calling it “false” and “inflated far above the base scale for any musician.” Among other points, the response also disputed the “20-hour work week” cited for Lyric orchestra musicians, stating that the total applies only to performances and ignores the fact that musicians must spend hours rehearsing for which they are not compensated.
Management at Lyric Opera said the cuts were needed to reduce costs and keep the opera alive in a time when it was struggling with demand for its performances. A non-profit organization, the Opera relies on ticket revenue and donations from corporations and wealthy individuals for income.
The opera’s budget increased by $24 million over the last six years, but the percentage going to musicians has been cut. Striking musicians say there is plenty of money to hire more musicians and other workers and guarantee good pay and benefits, but that money is not being used to compensate those responsible for bringing art and culture to the city.
The management says that it wants to reduce the size of the orchestra through attrition and “great retirement packages,” which is corporate-speak for forcing older, higher-paid workers out through early retirement. These are same conditions autoworkers, steelworkers, transport and other workers have faced for years with no resistance from the unions.
Audition notices for the 2017-2018 season advertised base pay for opera instrumental musicians at $63,000 per year, not including paid performances. However, the drop-in number of paid performances and other programs, coupled with the rising cost of living in Chicago will put significant financial strain on performers and their families.
Meanwhile on a gray and drizzly Wednesday afternoon, more than two dozen orchestra musicians continued to walk the picket line on Wacker Drive outside the Civic Opera House. Selections from Puccini’s La Boheme, the company’s season-opening production, now silenced by the work stoppage, blared from the company’s speakers on a wall above.
Some of the musicians stressed their concern for the future of the company as a leading international opera houses over and above their own financial and contractual concerns.
“One of the things that is a main concern to the orchestra is the dramatic decrease over the last decade in the number of performances that we’re giving and the amount of product that we’re offering,” said Kathleen Brauer, a member of the orchestra’s first violin section for 28 seasons. “It’s just been a really alarming trend [and] it’s not something we see as necessary.”
“I feel like we’re fighting for the art form more than anything,” said violist Frank Babbitt, an orchestra member for 24 years. “It’s not personal. It’s for this city,” he added. “It’s for a legacy organization that provides grand opera to everyone in Chicago, not just the wealthy.”
“We feel very strongly that this is a world-class company, a world-renowned company, said violinist Brauer. “It is a major cultural institution in Chicago. We feel like we’re on a mission to preserve it as the world-class institution that it is and not have it slowly bled to death.”
Brauer, explained that in addition to paying for masters’ degrees, all musicians “have to buy and maintain our own instruments [which can be an expense of tens of thousands of dollars]. An extremely high level of training is required to be here. They are from the best conservatories and over a hundred people from all over the world show up to our auditions.
“We are trying to preserve the quality of this world class opera company. It’s taken us 65 years to build this company and the cuts management are asking for are endangering its status as one of the best opera companies in the world. Management is demanding that we have 2 fewer weeks of work and cut 5 positions from the orchestra. This would greatly diminish the sound and damage what we are able to deliver. They’ve already eliminated the radio broadcasts that have allowed us to be heard around the world.
“In the last six years the budget of LO has grown by $24 million but our share has gone from 14 to 12 percent. It seems they are spending money on other things. This institution is one of the cultural jewels in Chicago’s crown and the city deserves a world class opera.
“I think it’s tragic that arts are the first thing to go. The arts are one of the things that really uplifts and unites human beings. It’s really an important part of the human experience.”
The Chicago Lyric Opera musicians strike reveals the crisis of art and culture in the United States and the world under the capitalist system. Funding has been drastically cut for arts programs since the 2008 financial crash, when corporations cut back large amounts of donations. In spite of all the talk of “economic recovery” by both Democratic and Republican politicians, this money has not been fully restored.
As recently as 12 years ago, the Lyric Opera held 90 performances per season, and many times was filled to 100 percent capacity. This year, it has only scheduled 56.
Ticket sales for opera and symphony concerts have fallen over the years, and part of the reason for this can be traced to cuts to school programs for the arts. Fewer and fewer children are being exposed to classical music and do not have the chance to develop an appreciation for it.
Additionally, high ticket prices put the opera and other cultural experiences out of reach for a growing majority of Americans who have less than $1,000 in savings at any given time, much less any extra money to spend on culture and leisure.
The Chicago Federation of Musicians is putting forward minimal demands, which are to maintain the Opera’s current programs and with no cuts to wages and a nominal cost of living increase. Management and its corporate donors, however, have refused to budge.
Musicians cannot fight this battle alone. There is widespread support for the arts among workers, labor unions, and young people throughout the city, the US and the world, which must be mobilized. Other sections of workers, including hotel unionists and steelworkers, are fighting similar struggles.
In order for cultural resources like the Chicago Lyric Opera to continue to exist and flourish, a change in social order is needed. The rich, who see funding for the arts as an unreasonable deduction from their profits, cannot be allowed to continue to control the wealth of society. The massive fortunes of the super-rich must be expropriated and used to raise the material and cultural level of the masses.
In their fight, CLO musicians should turn to fellow labor unionists and the working class to take their struggle for the protection of the arts forward. The right to living wages and free access to the arts and culture must be guaranteed for everyone.