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Chicago Symphony Orchestra members go on strike

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Chicago (AFP)

Members of the renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike Monday after 11 months of labor negotiations failed to reach an agreement.

The contract between the musicians and the 128-year-old orchestra's association expired at midnight.

A picket line formed Monday morning in front of Chicago's Symphony Center. Musicians said they would march daily until a deal was reached.

The musicians say the company is asking them to reduce their overall salary and benefits despite increasing revenue from sales and donations.

A key sticking point is over the structure of the musicians' retirement compensation.

Members want to retain a guaranteed pension structure. Management wants to switch to retirement savings accounts commonplace in the private sector.

The symphony's board of directors has called the musicians' demands "unreasonable," while orchestra members warn that the board's plans would hurt their ability to attract and retain high-level players.

Steve Lester, a bassist who leads the musicians' negotiating team, cited the orchestra's multi-million dollar endowment and said managements' proposals would "harm members and present a danger to the future of the orchestra itself."

The orchestra association expressed disappointment over the musicians' decision to strike, particularly amid an ongoing season, but announced no cancelations of performances, which were scheduled to resume Thursday.

"As Board members we are responsible for the financial well-being of the Association that governs the orchestra, not only in the present, but well into the future," Helen Zell, head of the orchestra's Board of Directors, said in a statement.

In a public letter, the board called the musicians' demands "unreasonable and detrimental to a sustainable future for the (orchestra)."

Music Director Riccardo Muti, a world-renowned conductor, has voiced support for the striking members.

"I understand their needs and how they should be treated, and the fact that they are among the best musicians in the world," Muti said in a letter.

"I hope that the board will remember that theirs is not a job but a mission, and that tranquility and serenity will be given for the artists to do their work," he said.

The strike follows a similar action at Chicago's Lyric Opera -- represented by the same union as the symphony members -- in October last year, when members of the premier arts institution walked out over cost-cutting efforts they said would reduce quality on stage.

That week-long strike ended with musicians agreeing to downsize the orchestra by four players and management agreeing to a pay increase.

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