When the Lyric Opera went quiet

October 22, 2018

Joseph Sinclair reports on a mixed contract following a strike by musicians at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.

AFTER ONE week on the picket line, musicians at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians (CFM) Local 10-208, reached an agreement with management on October 13 and ratified a new contract the following day.

On October 9, the musicians at the Lyric went on strike, seeking job security and higher wages. The strike forced cancellation of many events at the Lyric, including two performances of Puccini’s La Boheme — where $400 can buy you an orchestra-level ticket to see an opera about being an impoverished artist.

After six days on the picket line, workers returned to the Lyric, having ratified a contract that the union declared a compromise.

The Lyric strike came on the heels of a walkout by workers at 26 Chicago hotels. The streets of downtown Chicago have grown quieter since 25 of those hotels have negotiated a union contract (only the Cambia Hotel refuses to settle).

Musicians of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra walk out on strike
Musicians of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra walk out on strike (Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra | Facebook)

The hotel workers’ drums and chants have stopped reverberating off of the downtown high-rises, but on October 9, those sounds were replaced by a brass ensemble as striking Lyric musicians, who had been working without a contract since June, played for picketers and passersby.

On a rainy October 13, the ensemble gathered under an overhang to play pieces by Susato, Strauss and Gabrieli for a rally after a silent march in “concert blacks” from the Lyric Opera to the Daley Center.

Members of musicians’ and performers’ unions, as well as other labor unions, spoke about the importance of art, labor and a living wage. The rally ended with a silent procession back to the Lyric, with members of the American Guild of Musical Artists lining up along the route in solidarity.

THE CONTRACT is far from a clear victory. There are concessions, including a reduction in the number of main opera season weeks from 24 to 22 and a reduction in the number of musicians’ jobs. However, job cuts have been pushed back until the 2019-20 season, and have been reduced from management’s proposed five to four musicians.

Instead of management’s proposed pay cuts, workers will now receive a 5.6 percent raise over three years, as well as increased family leave and improved working conditions. Musicians are also guaranteed positions in the orchestra when the Lyric hosts its spring musical and productions by the Joffrey Ballet.

Management’s proposed cuts in pay, hours and jobs came on the heels of decreased health benefits for musicians, cuts in rehearsal hours and “raises” that, when adjusted for inflation, have amounted to a 5 percent decrease in pay since 2011. Orchestra members say these austerity measures would result in a decrease in the quality of musicians who could play, threatening the Lyric’s world-class reputation.

Lyric CEO Anthony Freud, who remained incredibly hostile to strikers, claimed the cuts are necessary due to decreased ticket sales, donations and interest in performances.

But the numbers contradict Freud’s claims.

Even before the cuts in performances, the Lyric Opera House has a stellar 84 percent fill rate for performances — a number that other large opera houses dream of.

While it is true that ticket sales account for a small percentage of an opera’s budget, the claim that patrons are suffering from “donor fatigue” is simply untrue. Since the financial crisis, donations to arts organizations have outpaced nearly all other categories in growth.

From 2012 to 2017, the Lyric has seen a near 40 percent increase in its budget, from $60.4 million in 2012 to $84.5 million in 2017. Much of this money came from two recent donor programs, with money earmarked specifically to pay the budgetary difference after ticket sales.

The supposed lack of interest in opera has been disproven by high ticket sales and the popularity of ticket-discount programs.

Over the last several years, Freud has demanded concessions from musicians and performers to help fund his own salary increases. He has received several hikes, totaling an 18 percent increase from 2014 to 2017, with a 16 percent raise in 2016 alone. Freud’s current $800,000 annual salary is enough to cover the annual base pay of an orchestra member every three days.

Put another way, Freud could have saved the five jobs he was proposing to cut by simply giving up pay for two of his own workweeks each year. Instead, he demanded job cuts and forced every remaining performer, stage hand and member of the running crew to cut two weeks — or 8 percent — out of their performance schedule and pay.

TROUBLINGLY, ORCHESTRA members felt pressured to settle from workers in two of the other unions at the Lyric: the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA.) Both of these unions recently ratified their own contracts and were applying pressure on the orchestra to settle.

While it’s easy to defy the demands of management for concessions, it’s much more difficult to endure fellow workers pleading with you to settle. It is only through workers’ solidarity that decisive victories are obtainable.

If IATSE and AGMA had chosen to join the picket line rather than push for a return to work, the orchestra musicians may have been able to secure a better contract.

While support from donors and the public at large was near-universal, Freud and management went on an all-out assault, attempting to discredit orchestra members, while outright lying about actual wages and refusing to acknowledge that musicians spend time practicing their music outside of performances.

This attack may not have succeeded in turning the public against the orchestra, but it may have succeeded in affecting rank-and-file support among IATSE and AGMA members, and in increasing pressure on CFM union leaders to settle.

As we look to recent strikes — from the red-state teachers’ rebellions’ to hotel strikes in Chicago and beyond — one thing is clear: Higher levels of solidarity from other workers refusing to cross the picket lines can help turn the tide in favor of strikers, and are vital to strike victories.

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