Stephen Lester of the CSO | Interview
Chicago Symphony Orchestra bassist and Orchestra Members Committee chairman discusses the results of the symphony’s strike.
When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and the musicians’ negotiating committee finished locking horns over salary and health-care costs last week, the CSO’s first strike in 21 years came to an end. But the feelings that led to the orchestra walking out on a September 22 performance are still raw. We chatted with Stephen Lester, a CSO bassist who represents the musicians as chairman of the Orchestra Members Committee, just hours before the first post-strike performance with music director Riccardo Muti.
What’s the atmosphere at Symphony Center now that the new three-year contract has been ratified?
The strike hasn’t sat well with the orchestra. This is not the way the CSO has done business in the past. This is not the way we want to treat our patrons.
Were you satisfied with the way management communicated the strike to the press?
The statements of the Association, and the press releases, were grossly inaccurate. The references to the [salary] dollar amounts were not accurate, and the context in which they were put was not accurate. [The CSO Association quoted the average salary for musicians as $173,000; Lester says “the figure is approximately $15,000 to $20,000 less.”] Clearly the Association had planned this—they had the press releases ready to go. They were, I think, attempting to force the strike to occur. When we had the first negotiation meetings, back in July, both sides were in agreement for a press blackout.
The Association didn’t hold up its end of the deal?
No. In the days leading up to [Saturday, September 22], they were leaking some sort of story that we were going to play all the way through the upcoming tour. We never discussed that, actually. In fact, we specifically told the Association that we couldn’t guarantee services after the Millennium Park concert on [September 21]. On Saturday night, they broke the press embargo we had agreed upon.
How are the musicians feeling about the deal?
We are pleased that the orchestra compensation wasn’t significantly reduced, but we’re not pleased that it hasn’t significantly increased. The contract has resulted in extremely modest pay increases—about 4 percent over three years. The Association wanted to use health-insurance costs as a way of reducing our income—by shifting a very large amount of the cost onto members of the orchestra. We had agreed that we would pay more in health-insurance costs, but nothing to the extraordinary degree that the Association was looking for. We’re not denying we’re well-compensated employees. But we devote our lives to this. Many of us started training as children.
The strike has resulted in some patrons threatening to withhold financial support from the CSO.
I was standing in front of Orchestra Hall with a picket sign with about 20 other orchestra members. For every person who was outraged—and we certainly understand the outrage—there were at least two or three who were very understanding and supportive of the situation.
How does the orchestra feel about tonight’s concert?
It will be business as usual. We rehearsed with Maestro Muti all day yesterday. Everyone is happy to be back. Did [the strike] destroy us? No. In the end, both sides survived.