A Mediation Intervention in Chicago

A last-ditch mediation by Rahm Emanuel that ended a 2019 strike by Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians highlights the value of thinking outside the box when conflict-resolution efforts have failed.

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A contract dispute in the spring of 2019 between the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and its musicians led to a disruptive seven-week strike, the longest in the venerable orchestra’s 128-year history. An unexpected intervention by Chicago’s departing mayor drew the dispute to a harmonious finale—and illustrates the role of the mediation process in conflict resolution.

Negotiations in a Minor Key

Over 11 months of negotiations, the musicians, represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians, were unable to negotiate a mutually agreeable new contract with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA).

There were two main points of contention. First, the CSOA wanted to change the performers’ pension from an employer-funded defined benefit plan to a direct contribution plan akin to a 401k. The musicians flatly refused. Second, the musicians demanded a significant raise to bring the orchestra’s annual base salary, then around $160,000, in line with that of other major U.S. orchestras, but the CSOA would agree to only modest salary increases.

On March 10, the musicians declared a strike and began picketing in front of Symphony Center on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. While conductors typically stay neutral in such labor disputes, CSO music director Riccardo Muti gave the strikers his full-throated support: “I am here with the musicians,” he declared at the picket line.

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Disrupting a Familiar Tune

Seven weeks of “picket lines, accusations, counter-accusations, dueling press conferences, and other forms of angst” followed, writes Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune. Orchestra Hall stayed dark, and the CSOA’s revenue losses mounted. Despite federal mediation assistance, both sides remained rooted in their entrenched positions with no compromise in sight.

Muti was due to kick off his spring season with the CSO on May 2, increasing the urgency of the situation. Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s unpopular mayor, was set to leave office on May 20. Perhaps spying a last-ditch opportunity to burnish his legacy, the mayor—who once famously said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste”—offered to lead a mediation. Emanuel had never mediated a labor dispute as mayor, but both the musicians and the CSOA were game.

Call and Response

The morning of April 26, negotiators from both sides gathered at Chicago’s City Hall for what turned out to be an eight-hour mediation. The mayor addressed the negotiators without notes and was well versed on the dispute, CSOA president Jeff Alexander told Crain’s Chicago Business. Adopting evaluative mediation tools, Emanuel, a former ballet dancer and fan of the arts, sent the opposing parties to different rooms and engaged in shuttle diplomacy, visiting each room with proposals and ideas.

According to Steve Lester, a CSO bassist who chaired the musicians’ negotiating committee, the mayor “set a mood of great respect for the institution, and especially for the musicians.” Through “a gradual process with a lot of give-and-take,” a deal took shape.

By the end of the day, the two sides had reached consensus on a five-year contract. The CSOA agreed to raise wages by 13.25% over five years, a substantial increase from its initial proposal, though short of the musicians’ demands. The musicians agreed to transition to a defined-contribution retirement plan beginning in mid-2020, with employer contributions valued at 7.5% of the base salary, plus additional payments for the first three years based on musicians’ age and years of service. On May 2, as scheduled, the CSO made a triumphant return to Orchestra Hall under Muti’s baton.

Mediation Notes

Learn from these mediation and negotiation best practices:

  1. Make the most of time pressure. According to “ripeness theory,” disputants won’t come to agreement until the time is ripe—often, when the costs of continued impasse appear unsustainable. When this time comes, look for creative ways to encourage parties to soften their demands.
  2. Shake things up. Negotiators who repeat the same words and actions in the same locale risk getting permanently stuck. For the CSO disputants, a change of venue and a new mediator seemed to help them move forward. When parties are stuck in a rut, a change of venue, new personnel, or a mediator may help them view their negotiation with fresh eyes.
  3. Consider a high-profile mediator. Professional mediators are typically the best people to enlist when negotiators need a creative go-between. But in some situations, a high-profile leader from your industry or community—someone you can trust to be neutral, well prepared, and determined—may motivate parties to make needed concessions.

What other novel mediation strategies have you found to be successful in resolving disputes?

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