The CSO in action Credit: Mark Ordonez/Flickr

It’s been a busy few weeks on the labor front for both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Columbia College.

Last Saturday, one day after meeting in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office and issuing an announcement that they’d come to a tentative agreement that would end a seven-week strike, both the musicians of the CSO and management, known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, ratified a five-year contract that sounds very similar to a “best and final” offer the CSOA had presented to the union nearly three weeks earlier.

The musicians managed to squeeze the CSOA for a fraction of a percent more in salary increases beyond the earlier offer in each of the contract’s final three years (base salaries will rise 13.25 percent over the five-year period) but were forced to give up on their campaign to retain a traditional “defined benefit” pension plan that would guarantee a specific income in retirement. They settled for an arrangement that will shift everyone to a riskier “defined contribution plan,” but will protect current employees with a backup annuity and an initial bump in employer contributions based on seniority. No such protection has been specified for future orchestra members.

“We would have loved to have kept a defined benefit plan and we still think it’s the best way to go forward,” CSO bassist and negotiating committee chair Stephen Lester said by phone on Sunday. “The Association was absolutely unwilling to compromise and they basically threatened to cancel the rest of the season, which would have put Ravinia in doubt and would have been a catastrophe for everyone. It’s a scorched-earth, mutual assured destruction strategy, which has no place in trying to come to an agreement. So we had no real choice.

“But,” Lester added, “we were able to get a secure guaranteed benefit for the [current] members of the orchestra going forward.” And he said they’re “studying” what to do about new hires. “We’re working with the Association to come to an agreement on a plan for them; the expectation is that we will work cooperatively to get this done.”

Meanwhile, on April 17, after prolonged negotiations and under an imminent strike threat, Columbia College issued a joint statement with CFAC, its famously independent part-time faculty union, announcing that they’d reached a tentative agreement on a contract.

According to the statement, the college and the union just need a little more time to get the details down in writing before presenting it to the union membership for ratification.

Union members I talked with were guardedly optimistic about what kind of deal their controversial longtime president, Diana Vallera, had worked out. “Whatever else you say about [Vallera], she negotiates good contracts,” English department adjunct Joseph Fedorko told me. He also thinks a strong contract would give Vallera, who’s been CFAC president since 2010, her best chance at getting reelected in the fall. But he’s not betting that she’ll win. “She’s made too many enemies,” he said. “She’s alienated a lot of people.” (Vallera did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.)

Among the alienated: the five union members CFAC put on trial last fall. In November, amid a contested appeal for a strike, CFAC created a mysterious new “Integrity Committee” that notified the five that they’d been anonymously charged with conduct harmful to the union and summoned them to hearings that could result in fines and/or other punishment. They were instructed not to bring attorneys. Not wanting to legitimize the process, they told me, they refused to appear. In March, the committee issued a report on its findings, and the five were informed that they’d been expelled from the union.

According to the report, the committee found them guilty of theft of the union’s list of member e-mail addresses, of “undermining the union as collective bargaining representative” (in part by trying to get rid of its officials “other than through regular elections”), and of “conduct threatening the survival of the union” by encouraging members to stop paying “cease their auto-deduction” of membership dues. Exhibits attached to the report consisted mostly of e-mails between the five accused members (along with a sixth person, who wasn’t technically a union member at the time).

Now some of the expelled members are voicing their own charges against the union: they say their e-mail accounts must have been hacked in order for the union to access the messages it used as exhibits. A complaint about that has been filed with the Chicago Police Department. Since a Vallera-led separation from CFAC’s former state and national affiliates—the Illinois Education Association and the National Education Association—in 2015, union members concerned about what they say is a lack of communication and transparency haven’t had a higher authority under the union umbrella to go to for help.

Those most likely to campaign against the current leadership in the fall election are the activists who’ve been expelled and can’t participate. But one of them, cinema and television arts adjunct Carey Friedman, says they accomplished what they set out to do. “Our intention was always to get back to the bargaining table. Our actions last fall forced CFAC leadership into at least partially transparent communication with membership and definitely off the strike train. There’s now a contract for CFAC members to vote upon.”

At press time, CFAC members were still waiting for that contract to appear.   v