Debating the symphony strike

September 27, 2012

Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) went on strike September 22, forcing the cancellation of a performance, when management refused to budge on their demand for a significantly larger contribution from musicians for health care coverage. Though the contract was settled within days--with both sides compromising over the disputed issue, according to press reports--the strike caused an uproar in Chicago, where the CSO is one of the city's most revered institutions.

Like in the case of contract battles involving professional athletes, a lot of commentary in the media and on the Internet portrayed the CSO musicians as overpaid and selfish. Musician and writer Ellen McSweeney responded to some these objections in an article for her blog.

THE CSO musicians' strike is over. While it was happening, I noticed a few arguments surfacing again and again. I'd like to take a minute to debunk those arguments. Later, maybe we can have a discussion about whether orchestras are money-destroying, old-fashioned dinosaurs. Sometimes I think they are. But for me, it's been troubling to observe the anti-musician bias among...wait for it...musicians.

Here are the top three arguments I've noticed people moaning and groaning on the Internet, along with an example of each:

1. CSO musicians make a ton of money, and times are difficult in the arts. They should stop complaining.

the average salary of CSO musicians is $173,000......and they feel that they were not offered a fair contract? $173,000! Perhaps they would like to try and survive in this economy by doing REAL WORK......working for a company that has to survive and make a profit in this economy......There's way too many rich people and way too many working poor people, and this sort of situation illustrates this......It is snobbish and arrogant to walk off a job situation where the average salary is $173,000......sounds like the CTU and the CSO union have [been] reading the same book on how to get rich by extorting others.

Inside the Chicago Symphony's Orchestra Hall
Inside the Chicago Symphony's Orchestra Hall

I'm going to go ahead and say that as long as the CSO remains solvent--which it has--the musicians absolutely deserve the high salaries they are earning. (This is coming from a violinist who earns about one-seventh what they do.)

I think the musicians, and Andrew Patner, are right to compare winning a job in the Chicago Symphony with getting drafted by the New York Yankees. After all, the CSO slogan is World's Best, Chicago's Own--and they use that slogan to raise serious money. If the musicians are the world's best, it absolutely follows that they should be collecting the highest salary among the world's orchestras.

If we accept that point--which I think is pretty clear, unless you want to get into whether orchestras should even exist in their current state--then why do people keep bringing up their salaries? Because it's a cheap way to get the public turned against the musicians. It's just good, old-fashioned divide-and-conquer. ("Those bastards make how much more than me?! $*&@#$!")

Maybe instead of thinking of the arts economy as zero-sum ("Every dollar those musicians make is a dollar they're taking away from me!"), we should think of it as a tide that lifts--or sinks--all of our boats. If CSO musicians are valued highly, that has an elevating effect on the wages of every Chicago musician. This dude, Michael, above, probably isn't the only one who thinks playing in an orchestra isn't "real work" that deserves pay--and that's an attitude that plagues every single musician.

2. CSO musicians are not workers, and orchestral playing is not labor.

I'm all for first-rate artists making first-rate salaries, and indeed pushing the market to pay them what the market actually fairly determines that their skill is worth, but...what makes me uncomfortable with this discussion is that the CSO musicians, who are all paid an extraordinary salary (particularly when compared to their peers in other in England, the salaries for even the top players are, at best, about 1/3 as much, adjusted for cost of living), are using the language of labor/workers, but really this is a negotiation between "upper management"-level employees and executive-level employees. To make it sound like an issue of labor fairness is really quite disingenuous, regardless of the merits of the case.

The fact that they're musicians (and thus presumably of some sort of left-leaning set of values) doesn't automatically put them in a position that needs our support and advocacy. These are extraordinarily well-compensated employees, and this is a place where the language of capitalism is much more appropriate than any sort of language of basic fairness or decency. This is much more akin to a strike from the NBA or the NFL--"We're top players, we know what our work brings in, and we should get an appropriate chunk of that profit." We're talking about base salaries that put these employees at or near the top 5 percent of earners in the country, and for principal players well into the 1 percent level.

By all means, these players--whose work I greatly admire and happily pay for any chance I get--deserve compensation, but turning this into "us against them" populism is really quite bizarre. In this economic climate, it's really "them against them," which isn't nearly as romantic.

In this argument, I think there's a basic misunderstanding of what defines the employer-employee dynamic. Salary does not define the dynamic; power does. Why does it matter how highly paid the CSO musicians are if they have no control over the institution for which they work?

A few basic questions demonstrate the amount of power the musicians have. First, do the musicians have any say in major financial decisions made by the organization? No. Second, do they have control over the orchestra's means of production (the Symphony Center space, the equipment, the public relations department, the donor base)? No--because they're just employees.

Also, hold up. You're telling me that a group of people doing intense physical work, under the sole directorship of one man, playing exactly when he tells them to, aren't performing labor? The unionization of orchestral players has allowed musicians to control the length of rehearsal time, temperature, breaks and other essential working conditions. But anyone who's ever felt like an overworked mule--sore muscles and all--at the end of an orchestra rehearsal knows that orchestral playing is labor.

3. It's wrong for the CSO to withhold their services. They're inconveniencing patrons and hurting the orchestra's image.

"We came all the way from the suburbs and it would have been nice if they had called," Mijal said.

Rick and Esther Baumgarten of Lincoln Park said they were "disgusted" by the strike and said he wasn't convinced that union members considered the impact on fans.

"We love the symphony," said Mr. Baumgarten, a 40-year subscriber. "We consider it to be one of the best in the world. I don't think I can sit and listen to them the same way again. I'll be tempted to boo them the next time I watch them, rather than cheer. This city loves them and I think they're being offensive."

I am sure that the orchestra did not want to go on strike and hates the idea of turning people away from a concert. A strike is always a last resort. But inconveniencing patrons--inconveniencing everyone in the organization, in fact--is the point of a strike. And labor law in the United States--as skewed as it is towards the employer--gives the musicians a fundamental right to withdraw their labor. It is one of the only leverage tactics that employees have in order to get what they're asking for. The management holds a lot of cards; the musicians basically only hold this one.

4. BONUS: Uh, do any of these arguments sound familiar?

Yes--because they're the same arguments people used against the Chicago Teachers Union two weeks ago. People claimed that teachers earned too much (less than half what the CSO musicians make), and that they were "hurting the children" by striking. As it turns out, what the teachers were striking for included smaller classes sizes, more social services, more art and music teachers, and more money for classroom supplies.

These are stock arguments against any workers who dare to say no to their management. The next time a group of people goes on strike, be on the lookout for them.

First published at the Ellen McSweeney blog.

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