Workers of the (Opera) World, Unite!

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Despite earthquakes, hurricanes, Rick Perry (who wants to get rid of direct election of senators, among his many proposed “reforms”) and other disasters presenting themselves in recent weeks, it did not escape my notice that management and unions for the Metropolitan, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera all announced reaching contract terms that will insure continuity of performances, providing work for many talented people and opera for audiences who care about all of this. This is good news.

I never held a union job in opera companies, but wish I had. In one company I was prevented from joining the union to which I was entitled to belong. Although my managerial positions may have seemed exalted, I usually made less money than the hundreds of people who thought of me as their boss. I did not begrudge them this, although being a manager made some of them think that I would. One union employee I had was reflexively adversarial and, when there was something to discuss, she would arrive in my office in high dudgeon and lecture me about abusive management. Both she and some members of management in opera companies (and throughout the entire labor environment in the U.S.) stake these positions and heighten the tension. Bad move. 

We are all workers, whether or not be belong to a union. I might have had management jobs, but I also had bosses and, sometimes, they had bosses. Only a tiny fraction of the people who work in America, even if they own their own business, are something other than a worker. Doctors work, and so do writers, contractors, farmers and opera singers, even if they are all thought of as self-employed.

When I have worked as a management consultant to opera companies, one of the first things I am asked is about unions, contracts, budgets and how things work at other opera companies. These are the right questions because, obviously, if you can’t pay to do an opera production, nothing else works. So intelligent financial planning towards agreed-upon wages makes it more possible to program future seasons.

Opera company heads are often taken aback when I propose that we not follow the boilerplate contracts used by managements and unions into which all kinds of clauses and codicils are written. When this approach is taken, it leads to arguments and rancor across the bargaining table. My approach is to study the particular microclimate of the company in question: Its budget, its programming, the community it is in (e.g., would musicians have access to other outside work) and that whole category known as “past practice.” In this, I try to gently but firmly find out whether “we always did it this way” means “we should always do it this way.” Then, after this investigation, I propose writing a contract specific to the company and its employees that will be effective for all parties.

Richard Wagner might have been a bad manager of his own money, but he was very attuned to the dignity of work. In Das Rheingold, we see a hierarchy of workers. The Nibelungs work in a sweatshop with long hours, bad conditions and little or no compensation. Mime might be the floor manager and his brother Alberich is a tyrannical boss who, despite his own issues, seems to have little understanding of the suffering of others. 

When Wagner drafted this story around 1848-1850, it was the era of the Industrial Revolution in which laborers were lowly components in a process that brought profits to a few and kept most people in miserable circumstances. In the same opera the giants Fafner and Fasolt contract for work to build Valhalla, the castle, for the Gods. They are rightfully indignant when Wotan, Inc. tries to cheat them out of their pay. How shocked (or not) are audiences at the fact that Wotan (with advice from his “consultant” Loge) steals the gold? Do we just expect that people in power feel entitled to steal and abuse others?

Throughout the Wagner canon are bosses and workers. The most benign setting is the shop where Mary gently supervises while women spin and weave. The daydreaming Senta is indulged rather than forced to return to her labors. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the opera in which workers really get their due. They form guilds and set their own high standards of quality. They want to excel because that is their code of ethics. Hans Sachs's monologue from “Verachtet mir die Meister nicht,” can be translated perhaps as “Do not tell me of your contempt for masters of their craft.” It praises those who are serious about their jobs and take pride in it.

We have many Wotans and Alberichs in our midst. Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs recently wrote about how U.S. CEOs "pull in compensation that is hundreds of times higher than their workers, a far higher multiple than in any other part of the world” and “live like royalty in a country that once prided itself on being a republic.” 

Verizon workers, who average $70,000 a year in pay, were described as greedy for going on strike to protest cuts in health and retirement benefits. In our expensive society, these workers make a living wage, but are rightfully incensed that their CEO Ivan Seidenberg earns about $55,000 a day. I should point out, too, that Seidenberg earned more money than Verizon paid in taxes. Politicians give many of these huge companies a pass.

Most politicians pay only lip service to workers and allow themselves to become beholden to corporate interests. When certain politicians brag that they have a golden touch in creating jobs in their jurisdictions, my answer is “wages” -- in other words, are these jobs with middle-class possibilities? A governor might take credit for jobs created in his state, but we would then see that they are largely minimum wage posts in a state with some of the worst records in terms of health coverage, education results, pollution and environmental records, and more. Just to take one current example, many jobs may have been created in Texas in the past few years (and not necessarily by its governor) but the statistics of well-being of the average citizen of Texas, a wealthy state, are equivalent to those of the poor states of Alabama and Mississippi. That is not good government.

When I hear that the problem with our country’s economy is unionized workers, I laugh. Americans are among the most productive workers in the world, whether they belong to unions or not. Whatever abuses might be committed by a small minority of unionized workers in no way compares to the theft perpetrated by a small minority of executives, Wall Street types, and politicians. We must target those who abuse everywhere, but especially those who commit grand larceny.

The United States ranks 97th out of 136 countries in terms of the inequality of income distribution. The five countries immediately ahead of the U.S. and with smaller incomes disparities are Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Iran, Malaysia and Nigeria. Who, you ask, is the source of these statistics?: The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America. If they are not accurate, who would be?

Why do I raise this on Labor Day, whose meaning is largely forgotten in the midst of barbecues, department store sales and those last rays of sun? Two reasons: I believe in fairness and see so much unfairness in the nation we love and praise. Also, with precious little government funding of the arts we must rely on corporations and private donors to keep our arts companies solvent. I pay my taxes, as you do, and many corporations steal billions of dollars that they should be paying. This money would reduce the national debt, allowing the government (of the people) to provide services to all that citizens of most industrialized countries not as rich as we are take for granted. And a tiny fraction of this money would also go to the arts, which provide insight, solace, pleasure and also are good motors of the economy. 

Paul Robeson, whom I would have loved to hear sing opera (perhaps Simon Boccanegra), understood the dignity inherent in putting in an honest day’s work, which is precisely what workers of all types, union and non-union, all desire. Here is his eloquent rendition of the song “Joe Hill."