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CSO, Musicians Reach Tentative Deal, Ending Strike

The main entrance of Chicago's Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

The main entrance of Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its musicians have reached a tentative deal for a new contract, suspending a strike by orchestra members that had threatened the new season.

Details weren’t available, but the CSO’s management released a joint statement Monday with the Chicago Federation 0f Musicians  announcing the deal for a new three-year collective bargaining agreement, which would take effect retroactively to Sept. 17. The statement also says “all previously scheduled CSO activities will proceed as planned” — which would seem to mean a Wednesday evening performance will go on as planned.

The contract must be ratified by the musicians and the CSO Association Board of Trustees, the statement said.

Orchestra members declared a strike Saturday and picketed outside Orchestra Hall, where patrons had arrived for an evening performance that was abruptly canceled.

CSO Association President Dorothy Rutter says administrators were blindsided by the strike.

“I thought we were doing really, really well, and then they told us that they would not perform,” she told CBS 2′s Dorothy Tucker Monday.

The two sides in the labor dispute met Monday to try to iron out their differences.

Orchestra members held out over higher pay and medical benefits. The main issue in the walkout was management’s demand that musicians pay more than twice their current rate for health insurance benefits — from 5 percent to 12 percent. The CSO musicians’ average annual salary, including overtime and seniority, is $173,000 a year, but union members said the increase in health costs would eat into any pay increase.

The walkout by musicians came just one week after strike by Chicago teachers ended.

The union leader of the CSO musicians says there’s no connection but agrees members learned the importance of communication from the Chicago Teachers Union.

“They communicated well, and we’re trying to learn how to communicate well ourselves,” Stephen Lesser said. “We have a Facebook page now and a website – that’s all in the last 24 hours.”

University of Illinois-Chicago Labor Relations Prof. Bob Bruno says unions facing negotiations next spring have taken notes from the CTU strike.

“Other unions that are in difficult bargaining processes look at the teachers and they see it as a template or as a model for how we can prepare for the possibility of a strike,” he says. “How do we educate our members, how do we mobilize our members, how do we communicate with the public?”

The CSO was also scheduled to go on tour to New York and Mexico in early October.

In recent years, symphonies in Cleveland, Detroit, and Seattle have all endured strikes, primarily over benefits issues. The CSO’s last strike was 1991.