New York City Opera Negotiations Break Down

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New York City Opera has declared an impasse in negotiations with the unions representing its orchestra and chorus, with the two sides unable to reach an agreement on wages and benefits. The latest negotiations ended in a deadlock on Wednesday night.

City Opera is facing severe financial problems. In efforts to cut costs, the company has left its longtime home at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, reduced its season down to four productions and laid off nearly half of its administrative staff.

Don Batchelder, City Opera's principal trumpeter and a negotiating committee member with Local 802, said the company is asking for more than 90 percent in pay cuts from its musicians -- and wants to turn the orchestra into a freelance troupe. "The management has made it pretty clear that they want to jettison their orchestra and chorus and replace us with freelancers,” said Batchelder. “Their philosophy is, if we need you, we’ll call you. That is really a great disservice to the legacy and to the quality of New York City Opera."

The company says the proposed pay cuts are not nearly as drastic, and in a statement added that the two unions “refused to recognize the Opera’s financial situation and demanded huge guarantees for work that won’t be realized, wage increases, and full-year health care coverage for mere weeks of work.”

City Opera's budget has shrunk to $13.3 million from around $31 million. The musicians maintain that management is seeking cuts that are disproportionate to the overall company budget. They've also reiterated that, as a freelance group, the overall quality will suffer irrevocably. But in an interview with WQXR in July George Steel, the company’s general manager and artistic director said the cuts will bring it on par with its industry peers. "The contracts that we are seeking are in fact identical to most opera companies around the country, including the Los Angeles Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, and so on," he said.

The latest impasse comes after a marathon 14-hour negotiating session on Wednesday. It’s unclear what the next steps may be, although Batchelder said union lawyers are considering filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over what he said was management’s refusal to talk further. He added that the union has authorized a strike "but we are not yet at that point.”