Met Opera Contract Talks: Something’s Gotta Give

Print Share on LinkedIn More



May 6, 2014; New York Times

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, sent an email to employees last weekend describing the current situation as “the biggest economic challenge in the company’s history.” The email served as a prelude to the opening round of contract talks with the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the Met’s chorus, dancers, singers, and stage managers.

The Guild’s contract, along with the contract of 15 other Met unions, will expire at the end of July. Management is seeking to cut both pay and benefits for its workers for the first time in decades, noting that declining ticket sales and a shrinking endowment have made the proposed cuts necessary. He indicated that the Met’s board understands the need to rebuild the endowment, but has made cutting costs a condition for doing so.

As you will remember, this same situation has popped up elsewhere with some pretty dramatic results, as in the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, about which we have written extensively. As you may recall, the demands of the orchestral association there led to an epic 15-month lockout of the musicians and upheavals among stakeholders.

In the case of the Met, the opening act of what is bound to be a closely watched drama did not go smoothly. The union invited reporters to the first negotiating session, the Met countered by filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and a number of employees managed to speak out against the proposed changes before the Met’s lawyers entered, stage right, and the members of the media exited, stage left.

It could be a long, hot summer for both sides. –Eileen Cunniffe

  • Alan Gordon

    We can not understand Peter Gelb’s refusal to allow the press to cover the negotiations, unless he has something to hide. The Met is, essentially, a public trust and the public has a right to know what it is that Gelb is trying to hide: Resuscitating his legacy of waste, excess and extravagance by crippling the lives of the Met’s performers and their families by cutting their compensation by 20-25%, their pensions by 40% and increasing their health costs by $15,000 a year.
    During the first day of negotiations, Gelb repeated the disjointed financial presentation he had previously made to the Met’s Orchestra and Stagehands. Although the ultimate point of the presentation seemed unclear, it did reveal that the Met’s budget had increased by more than $100 million since he took over, that he had overdrawn the Met’s endowment, and that the box office remained in decline and had not been improved by his HD campaign. He also reported that HD revenue, and the profit sharing money for solo artists from HD, had begun to diminish. He reiterated his intention to seek deep cuts in compensation from all segments of the AGMA shop, including solo singers.
    Following Peter’s presentation, the union began a lengthy safety discussion, introduced by Wendy White, who described in detail the horrendous way in which the Met had treated her after her career-ending injury, one that had been caused by the Met’s admitted negligence. Wendy had performed more than 500 times as part of the Met family, until she became crippled as a result of the collapse of a negligently constructed platform. Apparently to save money, the platform had been constructed by an outside company, not by Met stagehands. After Wendy had been injured, Gelb initially refused to pay out her contract because “she couldn’t sing”. After AGMA threatened litigation, Gelb paid her what he owed her, but thereafter his team of lawyers aggressively fought, and continues to fight, Wendy in court in opposition to her efforts to recover damages from the Met to compensate her for its negligence.
    As many principal singers may not know, however, is that they have absolutely no protection against a career-ending injury when performing at the Met, even if it’s caused by the Met’s negligence. To remedy that, we’ve made extensive proposals (along with those of IATSE Local 1’s stagehands) as part of these negotiations, to make certain that all possible contractual provisions are in place to prevent such negligence in the future and, should it nonetheless occur, to make certain that singers’career income is protected.
    Gelb also revealed the details of the supposed “new business plan” he had announced in his end-of-season message to Met employees. He described as “spend less, earn more”, even after it was pointed out to him that “spend less, earn more”, was not an actual business plan.
    Although the true extent in the cuts and working conditions he has proposed, as they affect solo singers, remains unknown, what was apparent from the May 5th meeting was that Peter simply doesn’t care about the effect on people. His interest is only in cost cutting and says that the Met’s Board has instructed him…perhaps as a condition of his continued employment as General Director…that he must reduce compensation and Gelb says that he’ll take it from “everybody”.
    The AGMA negotiating committee made it clear to Peter that the only way in which the three unions and their members would consider helping him stabilize the Met’s finances were 1) If he accepted some measure of oversight by the performers to control his astronomically increased spending and 2) If he agreed to find ways to reverse the waste, excess and extravagance that have thus far been the hallmark of his current administration.
    Gelb has continuously threatened to lock out all Met employees on August 1st as a tactic to bully his employees. We will do everything possible, in cooperation with the other two unions, to assure that Gelb does not force the Met to go dark.
    Alan Gordon,
    Executive Director
    American Guild of Musical Artits, AFL-CIo

  • Roberto Lunes

    Right now the theater arts are having a difficult time with finances. Many of the groups were founded with the idea that the general audience would only pay thirty or forty percent of the expenses through ticket sales and the rest would come from other sources such and the federal or state government or donors.

    The federal and state governments are deep in debt and some of the individuals that support the arts are showing “giving fatigue”. It is about time that someone goes to a zero based budgeting and cuts administrative costs, artistic costs, and event production costs before the Met Opera and other great institutions go away for ever.

    The fact that the health care costs are going up is not the fault of the Met. My health care cost goes up and I pay the bill as do most people whose cost of health care has risen. To the Local 1, “get real”!

    I hope the Metropolitan Opera can solve the financial problems, but the problems will not be solved by signing another contract that does not have substantial give backs by the unions. Costs must be controlled.