Wealthy CSO board treasurer James Mabie co-founded ChiArts high school—and both outfits refuse to fund workers’ pensions.

CHICAGO—Finance executives have salivated for decades at the prospect of getting their hands on workers’ retirement nest eggs and the high fees they can generate for financial service firms through vehicles like 401k plans. Workers, on the other hand, have fought hard to hold onto their pensions, which are protected from market risk and safeguard retirees for as long as they live.

That struggle is playing out today as Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians strike to preserve their pensions. Management has dug in its heels—including investment executive James Mabie, who serves as the CSO board’s treasurer and has made millions in his own right in investment banking and financial services. Mabie’s hostility to pensions for workers doesn’t stop at the CSO, though. For a decade, the unionized charter high school he cofounded—ChiArts, the Chicago High School for the Arts—has refused to pay into the pension fund for educators who serve Chicago’s public school students.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey will join striking CSO musicians at 10AM TODAY, Thursday, March 21 in front of Orchestra Hall, at 220 S. Michigan, to connect the dots, defend workers’ pension rights and decry the greed that threatens the retirement security of both the CSO’s world class musicians and ChiArts’ hardworking teachers.

“Every worker deserves a retirement with dignity—and we will fight tooth and nail collectively to ensure that this right is not denied, either for the musicians of the CSO or our teachers at ChiArts,” said Sharkey.

Mabie made millions as a partner for over 30 years at William Blair, which has more than $60 billion in assets under management, until he struck out last year to form his own company, Chicago Capital. His income gave him the means to position himself as one of Chicago’s leading arts philanthropists. But his largess seems to stop when it comes to securing the retirement security of the very workers who are the backbone of the arts groups that give him stature, from the CSO to ChiArts, where he serves as founding board chair.

The CTU has been bargaining for months with ChiArts management, which finally agreed late last year to begin paying into the CTPF, the pension fund for teachers and paraprofessionals whose salaries are funded by CPS. But ChiArts management quickly reneged on the agreement, instead arguing that because the school formed not as a charter but as a ‘contract’ school to duck charters’ open enrollment requirements, it didn’t have to pay into the CTPF. That claim, which the CTPF disputes, is a key point of contention at the bargaining table—and could push ChiArts teachers to strike.

Mabie and his wealthy cohorts have been no less hostile to CSO musicians’ pensions, even though management has admitted that it would likely be cheaper to preserve the current pension plan rather than force musicians into a 401k plan.

Investment executives like Mabie earn an enormous amount of money handling other people’s money, while workers forced out of defined benefit plans—their pensions—and into so-called defined contribution plans like 401k’s bear all the risk of those firms’ actions. Perils can range from outrageous fees to irresponsible investment strategies.

The relationship between 401k holders and the investment firms that control their retirement funds can be compared to employers versus nonunionized workers in ‘right to work’ states, says Boston University law professor David Webber, “[Workers are] alone and devoid of leverage to negotiate,” he wrote in the New York Times in 2018. “That stands in sharp contrast to traditional pensions, which, like unions, are collective and centrally managed.”

The payoff for investment players like Mabie, though, can be enormous—and it can be argued that management’s assault on the CSO musicians’ pensions by Mabie and his fellow board members represents the worst kind of self-dealing.

Investment executives like Mabie make their money not just by playing in the stock market, an enormously risky bet for workers’ retirements, but by charging fees for the privilege of gambling workers’ dollars in the markets—which can significantly erode workers’ retirement nest eggs. Fees alone for 401k plans, which Demos policy analysts have decribed as fatally flawed, can undercut the value of a worker’s retirement accounts by as much as 30%. The defined contributions racket also denies workers of any agency, unlike pension funds, which elect their officers and are accountable to their contributors.

CSO musicians are having none of it—and CTU members are supporting their struggle to preserve the pension rights that have made the CSO a top destination for the world’s best musicians, just as pension rights protect the teachers who are educating our next generation.

The Chicago Teachers Union represents more than 25,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in Chicago Public Schools, and by extension, the nearly 400,000 students and families they serve. The CTU is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers and is the third-largest teachers local in the United States. For more information please visit the CTU website at www.ctulocal1.org.