A new round of labor upheaval hit the classical music world on Sunday night, when the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the finest ensembles in the nation, went on strike in an effort to preserve their defined-benefit pension plan.

The players — who are among the best-paid in the field, earning a minimum annual salary of $159,000 last season, and often more — began walking a picket line outside Orchestra Hall on Monday morning.

In recent years, ticket sales have covered an ever-smaller portion of the cost of putting on classical performances. That has put pressure on orchestras to raise more money from donors — but also to try to cut expenses, leading to tensions with their unions. This fall, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s orchestra went on a brief strike and wound up agreeing to a contract guaranteeing fewer weeks of work. Two seasons ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Fort Worth Symphony found themselves on strike simultaneously.

There are several areas of dispute in the negotiations in Chicago, which have gone on for 11 months without an agreement, but the pension is the main sticking point. The orchestra’s management and board have warned that the growing expense of the current pension plan, which guarantees a set benefit for life after retirement, is unsustainable. They said in a statement that the orchestra contributed $3.8 million into the musicians’ pension fund this year — up from $803,000 just two years ago because of new federal requirements — and that those annual contributions were projected to continue rising sharply.

Management’s proposal has called for switching the musicians into a defined-contribution plan, similar to a 401(k), in which the orchestra would put a set amount of money into individual retirement accounts for the players, who could invest it as they chose.

Cynthia Yeh, a percussionist on the players’ negotiating committee, said in a statement that the defined-benefit plan “has been the hallmark of the orchestra’s benefits package (and those of other leading orchestras) for over 50 years.” She said the board’s proposal “strips the membership of that guaranteed benefit and shifts the investment risk to the individual member.”

Helen Zell, the chairwoman of the orchestra’s board, said in a statement that “it would be irresponsible for the board to continue to authorize a pension program that jeopardizes the orchestra’s future.”

While many other industries have shifted to cheaper defined-contribution plans in recent decades, defined-benefit plans remain the norm at the nation’s largest orchestras — and players around the country have made preserving them a priority. But many are underfunded. The American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund, a large multiemployer plan covering thousands of musicians, is currently considered “in critical status,” and if its condition worsens, it could trigger a rare move to cut the benefit payments for those already retired.

Last week, as the deadline the Chicago players set for an agreement neared, the orchestra’s eminent music director, Riccardo Muti, wrote a letter supporting the musicians to Ms. Zell and Jeff Alexander, the orchestra’s president. “As music director and a musician of this orchestra, I am with the musicians,” Mr. Muti wrote, urging the management to “remember that theirs is not a job but a mission” and speaking of the performers’ need for “tranquillity and serenity.”

Mr. Muti is scheduled to lead the orchestra in a program of Rossini, Vivaldi, Beethoven and Wagner on Thursday.

Source: The New York Times