It looks like the CSO 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, featuring awesome screenshots of people moaning and groaning on the internet:
1. CSO musicians make a ton of money, and times are difficult in the arts. They should stop complaining.
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.
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 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.
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.
P.S. — Hello there! Is this your first time visiting my blog? I write about lots of things besides the CSO strike. Check out these posts on why people quit music, how motherhood will destroy your music career, five things I wish I knew when I was in music school, musicians’ student loan debt, and why orchestral auditions are insane.