Met Chorus Outlines Scenarios for a Deal as Lockout Looms

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At a pre-negotiation caucus Monday morning at Lincoln Center, members of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) – the union representing chorus, dancers and soloists – aired their concerns about cuts to pay and benefits that the Met is proposing for the new contract. The union members also discussed potential scenarios that would lead to a deal and thwart a threatened lockout by management.

Fifteen of the Met's 16 union contracts expire on Thursday night. The Met has proposed five-year contracts, asking for work rule changes and benefit cuts that it says would generate 16 to 17 percent in savings.

"The likelihood of our getting anywhere on working conditions, on health insurance is perilously close to zero," said Bruce Simon, the attorney for AGMA, referring to the Thursday deadline.

Simon said that Met general manager Peter Gelb is currently "fishing in three ponds," referring to the three largest unions, which, along with AGMA, include those representing the orchestra and stagehands. "He's looking for one that will be the most vulnerable to his attack. If one of the unions collapses, the ability of the other unions to withstand whatever is set by that collapse is perilous at best."

Simon predicted that a lockout would occur, and that a high-profile mediator would ultimately be needed to broker a deal – alluding to names like Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. "It is my judgment, ultimately, that's the way it will end," Simon said, adding that the union is currently preparing for such an eventuality.

There was also talk of the other unions' strategies. Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), representing stagehands, recently appealed to the Met's board of directors "for a renewed focus on collaborative bargaining," according to a statement it released on Monday.

"We are part of the Metropolitan Opera family," wrote Matthew Loeb, president of IATSE, in a letter to the Met's board, dated July 18. "[O]ur love of this family is why we believe that a solution for saving the Met lies in expanding the dialogue in our deliberations beyond a singular focus on work rules, wages and benefits."

Simon seized on the statement as evidence that IATSE is opening the door to modest concessions.

Scott Dispensa, a Met chorister, alluded to a draft AGMA proposal to the Met on ways the company could save money that wouldn't involve concessions by musicians. But Simon said it was a non-starter. "If it's a way to save money that wouldn't impact you, Gelb is not interested," he said.

On Friday, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, representing the orchestra, released an 84-page proposal for how the Met could save millions of dollars by cutting ticket prices to 2007 levels and reducing rehearsal time by performing fewer long, costly operas. The Met published a rebuttal stating, "Your proposals for savings are either not achievable or not advisable." The company argued that the union's estimates were based on selling 100 percent capacity, and that cutting long operas "would fundamentally alter the institution and its mission."

At the AGMA caucus, several Met choristers spoke to Gelb's broader assertion that opera everywhere is facing struggles, and that the Met is being swept up in that tide. "They aren't comments that a general manager of an opera company should be making," said Daniel Smith, a chorister. "We need inspiration."

But ultimately it came down to competing numbers. Management says that its endowment fund, currently valued at $267 million, shrunk by more than 20 percent since 2007 because of the recession and annual draws to cover operating expenses; the union contends that the amount should be much larger given the strength of the stock market.

Union officials also said they called on the New York Attorney General to investigate the Met's heavy draws on its endowment fund. The company responded in a statement that its endowment has been managed in full compliance with all applicable laws and best practices.

"AGMA is clearly attempting to avoid good-faith bargaining obligations by trying to create an issue where there isn’t one," the Met's statement read. "We continue to hope that in the days ahead, AGMA will negotiate with us to find a workable deal."