Violist Max Raimi first got to know music lover and local political activist Joel Finkel during the 1991 CSO strike. Finkel was there the day the strike began, immediately following a free performance in Grant Park. “After the concert [the musicians] put down their instruments and picked up their picket signs,” Finkel says, “and they marched over to Orchestra Hall.”
The musicians were aware that a previous strike by symphony musicians had met with a hostile response from the public, and they were worried about what they were about to do. “This was like the Indian summer of the Reagan/Bush years, and we were not at all sure what kind of reaction we were going to get,” Raimi says. But Finkel beat them to Orchestra Hall and organized a crowd of supporters to greet the musicians by clapping and singing “Solidarity Forever.” “I don’t know how he did it, but it was a wonderful moment,” says Raimi. “And needless to say, it made quite a powerful impression.”
Raimi, a ten-year CSO veteran, had had some previous experience with activist causes: he’d played in a fund-raising concert for the McGovern presidential campaign, and more recently he’d played in one for the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance with the Mallarme Quartet, an ad hoc chamber group that also plays in local public schools. But he says he was basically a middle-of-the-road Democrat before his involvement in the strike. “I guess that was really the first time I thought about labor issues in any great detail.”
After the strike ended he kept in touch with Finkel, who went on to help organize opposition to the gulf war, do clinic defense work, and attend a 1993 labor conference in Detroit, where he met workers from Decatur’s A.E. Staley corn processing plant. The Staley workers were then waging an in-plant struggle against dangerous working conditions and the company’s attempts to gut a union-won contract–cutting health benefits, forcing workers onto 12-hour shifts without overtime, and abolishing seniority systems–at the behest of its new owner, the British conglomerate Tate & Lyle.
At the end of June 1993, the company locked out its 732 workers and ran the plant at a reduced capacity, using managers and scabs as labor. Finkel immediately became involved in the Chicago-based committee that formed to support the locked-out workers, and he brought the issue up in a conversation with Raimi later that summer. “I told him there were these 700-some workers down in Decatur who’d been locked out of their plant and I’m trying to raise money for them,” Finkel says. “And before the words had gotten out of my mouth Max said, ‘Well, why don’t we play a concert?'”
Raimi says he viewed the lockout as both an immoral act and a crucial battle for a labor movement on the defensive. “It seems to me that if you have the right to do that to any worker you have the right to do that to every worker,” he says, “and ultimately it could affect our ability to protect our own interests.”
The Mallarme Quartet gave a benefit performance last fall at Wisdom Bridge Theatre, raising around $3,000 for the workers’ families. One year later the lockout is still going strong, as is the work of the Staley Workers Solidarity Committee. So Finkel and Raimi have arranged another benefit, this time involving three Mallarme Quartet members and six other CSO musicians, performing as the Solidarity Chamber Players. “Last year we tried to target rich liberals,” says Finkel. “This year it’s the exact opposite. We’ve cut the ticket prices, and we’ve got twice as many ticket requests. So there are going to be a lot of people there for whom Mozart will be new.”
Raimi jumps at chances to introduce new audiences to classical music. He worries that most people are convinced “that you need to have all these high-class sensibilities–the sort of people who can see 15 forks at a dinner party and know which one to pick up first–you have to have that sort of sensibility to appreciate classical music. . . . We go into schools on the south and west side, and if we play well, and we’re into it, and we play with commitment . . . very often we get a much more understanding and appreciative audience there than we do sometimes even on Saturday night at Orchestra Hall.”
Strikes at the Firestone and Caterpillar plants have brought hard times to thousands of Decatur residents, but the families of Staley workers may well have it the hardest. Finkel says the money raised at this week’s concert is badly needed, and that the musicians’ support has been important. Raimi sees his involvement simply as solidarity. “On the one hand we do live in the world of these incredible works of art from the last 300 years,” he says, “but on the other hand we’re also workers. We owe our livelihood to our ability and our right to collectively bargain.”
Raimi and the other members of the American Federation of Musicians Local 10-208 who make up the Solidarity Chamber Players will perform Monday night at 7:30 in the Anderson Chapel at North Park College, 3225 W. Foster. Tickets are $12, $35 for supporting members. The money goes to Staley’s AIW/UPIU Local 7837 Lock-Out Fund. Call 769-4776 for information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.