Met Opera Warns Unions of a Lockout

High Stakes in Labor Talks

Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 04:00 PM

An ominous sky hangs over the Metropolitan Opera House The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. (Flickr/nicolemarti)

The Metropolitan Opera's union negotiations enter a tension-filled new phase on Friday when lawyers for management and orchestra musicians return to the bargaining table for the first time since May 5. The talks resume just days before 15 of the company's 16 union contracts expire on July 31.

On Wednesday Met general manager Peter Gelb sent all of its unionized workers letters warning them to prepare for a lockout if no deal is reached by the contract expiration date. 

"We are preparing for every possible contingency but remain hopeful that the unions representing Met employees will recognize their need to share in the institution-wide cost controls we are proposing," the Met said in a statement about the letters. "We hope to avoid any work stoppage and continue preparations for our season opening on September 22."

Separate talks are to begin on Monday with the union representing singers, dancers and chorus. The unions for stagehands, carpenters, costume shop employees and technicians (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) have been at the bargaining table since late June.

The resumption of negotiations with musicians comes after two months of steady brinkmanship, with competing sets of financial data and sometimes colorfully threatening e-mails forwarded to the press.

The parties appear far apart: The Met is seeking to cut worker compensation by as much as 17 percent, saying that it faces a dire financial crisis due to slowing box office revenues and reluctant donors. It notes that labor costs eat up two-thirds of its operations budget. The unions respond that the Met's problems are due to poor management and lavish spending, especially on new productions. They say they're willing to sit down and discuss other cost-cutting measures.

Lois Spier Gray, a professor emeritus at Cornell University's Institute of Labor Relations, believes that a shutdown "looks likely" given the distance between the parties. "There are very high stakes and the parties, as reported, are still very far apart in their positions," she said in an interview.

Gray believes that recent contract deals involving stagehands for Carnegie Hall (in 2013) and Broadway theaters (in 2007) – in which the unions largely prevailed on big-picture items after striking – are setting expectations for the Met talks. "They got some minor concessions, but the stagehands consider that they came out preserving their basic work rules," she noted.

It's not entirely clear whether the unions would walk out or be locked out. There is a precedent for the latter. On August 15, 1980, the Met sent out notices to its union employees that rehearsals for the coming season, which was scheduled to begin Sept. 22, would be suspended on Sept. 2 unless an agreement were reached in contract talks. An agreement was not reached and the season's opening was postponed by 11 weeks. The 2014-15 season is set to open with a new production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Chorus rehearsals are already underway.

On Tuesday, Alan Gordon, the executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), appealed to Met general manager Peter Gelb to allow the news media to attend the contract talks. "If you have nothing to hide from the public, there is no valid reason to refuse," Gordon wrote in an e-mail to Gelb. AGMA made a similar appeal in May and filed a complaint with the National Labor Review Board after the request was denied.

Photo: A musician pickets during the 1980 Met Opera lockout (From 'Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera')

LISTEN: Lois Spier Gray on the outlook for the Met Union Talks:



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Comments [24]

Les from Miami, Florida

It certainly looks like the situation is critical. This calls for decisive action by the Board of Directors. The goal is saving the Metropolitan Opera. I would call the meeting to order and command Mr. Gelb to stand down. I would call upon the unions to accept an across-the-board pay cut of 10%. In effect, union members would be paying to see Mr. Gelb leave. Using the Triumverate as a model, I would re-institute a governing triumverate consisting of Music Director, General Manager and replacing the Production Director or Stage Director, I would institute a Chief Union Representative who would represent all of the unions. I would reduce the number of productions drastically until or unless the chief accountant says it's feasible to increase them, thereby shortening the season. I would not reduce the number of performances per week, neither would I want to eliminate the theatical presentations and/or the broadcasts. Finally, I would hire someone with unimpeachable credentials and respect to be the spokesman/spokeswoman for the Met and chief fundraiser. No matter how hard one tries to wriggle, 90% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

Jul. 26 2014 10:10 AM

My $0.02. I'm not sure whether the current negotiations will be for "across the board" decisions, but we should remember that the 32BJ SEIU employees are way down on the salary list (I doubt if they are making the $200,000/year I've heard bandied about for a MET chorus member).

Is the MET negotiating with individual unions? Or across the board?


Jul. 26 2014 03:24 AM
Martha Dudrow from Pawleys Island, SC

I concur, Mr. Rothenberg. I wil admit to having a bit more sympathy for the unions; however, that said, I have zero for Peter Gelb. When I read that he had been given a 26% (I believe that was the figure) salary increase in 2012 (during the slide of Met finances that has occured on his watch, I might add),I was appalled. Giving back would not solve the problems, but it miight have been a good faith move on his part. I doubt he would have even considered it. I think it is time for him to go; he had no experience as "artistic director" of opera to begin with and his ability to run an organization could be called into serious question by what happened to SONY on his watch. I am not enamoured of some of the new productions bu I am, however captivated by the singing; and if this impass continues for long, and honest, concrete and reasonable solutions to the mess (in addition to Gelb's rapid departure...)are not discussed (more experienced folk than I will have to come up with those)..we won't have the "Euro-trash" as some call it, we won't have the singing, either. Wake up, MET Board!

Jul. 25 2014 11:54 PM
mrs newman

Where is John Dexter when you need him?

Jul. 25 2014 06:05 PM

Be careful Mr. very careful. You may think your way is correct but according to most (all) of the comments you are ending down a long narrow destructive patch, which saddens me immensely. Just more of the taking away of class this country once had! :(

Jul. 25 2014 09:45 AM
tony from New have,ct.


Jul. 25 2014 07:23 AM
Barb from NYC

Well, I certainly won't be putting down any dollars for Met tix this fall. Truly a shame, as I used to rotate my Friday evenings between NYCO and the Metropolitan Opera during the cold weather in NY. Some of the minimally skilled technicians are rather overpaid, have been for decades, on the system built by Volpe and his confreres. But this is where labor and management get involved in collective bargaining, early and often, to solve ongoing problems and realize changes and trends in the arts industry.
That Gelb's appointment was a horrible, horrible error by the board is widely apparent for sometime, and it rankles with the cadre of artists (vocal, musical and otherwise) who make the Met what it is, or was, and can be in the future!
I think the board needs to dump Gelb, bring in a temporary, negotiate some kind of extension with labor, and get the season up and running. Then let's pare some of the ghastly productions and get back to the core. We cannot afford to lose or even diminish this astonishing international treasure on the egomania of Peter Gelb.

Jul. 24 2014 06:24 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

No matter what one says, if indeed, the MET OPERA is to close down, we have GOT TO ORGANIZE influential people to have governmental support at least in a transitional period. Look what happened to our space program when it was defunded. Scientists had to find work elsewhere and to reorganize the personnel optimally the search was difficult and some say not adequate to the mission. The MET OPERA standards had better be more consistent with its best years past knowing how the "keeper of the treasure" has NOT to POLLUTE ITS CHEMISTRY WITH JUNK !!!

Jul. 24 2014 06:20 PM
Mary-Louise Murray-Johnson from NY and Germany

I am in agreement with virtually all of the above comments. As I have written to several NY publications, the problem is Peter Gelb; his egoism, his expensive Eurotrash productions, etc. No longer can I take children or grandchildren to the Met. They will hopefully learn what great opera can be from other sources , even if it is CDs of older performances I was horrified at the latest almost Nazi inspired production of "Haensel and Gretel" and the travesty of the clanking ugly "Ring". I, a long time opera lover, am no longer a Metropolitan Opera attendee - too much cash for too much trash.
From Mary Louise Murray-Johnson

Jul. 24 2014 05:47 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama IInstitute, Boonton, NJ

The sentiments expressed here, and wherever I converse with others on the sad state of the arts today, is that NOBODY ON AUTHORITY seems to care about our most cherished icons of our civilization. We may go to war thousands of miles away on the proposition that we are protecting their democratic rights and by so doing thereby sacrificing our own people, our own financial health and our own needs for surviving in this highly competitive world. REMEMBER, EVEN EMPIRES SELF DESTRUCT WHEN THEY LOSE THEIR VALUE SYSTEM.

Jul. 24 2014 03:55 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

Note at the end of the credits on the Met's HD transmissions.....the very last credit is Gelb's credit........Peter Gelb, Producer.

That certainly says it all. He's not the General Manager....he's the "producer" - just like on Broadway. Artistic purview....forget it! Production, production, production.

Jul. 24 2014 01:27 PM
Jesse Hankla from Tampa Bay Area

Please, Mr. Gelb, remember you do not get these productions on the stage. (At the risk of being cynical, I think you were hired, via a generous contractual agreement, to enhance this company?) It is the great musicians, singers, and crafsmen who nightly in opera season, are responsible for the magic, we simply know, as the MET. Now is your opportunity to something constructive, as opposed to destructive. Friends of mine and I travel annually from the Tampa, FL area, sometimes biannually, to NYC, with the MET as our primary focus. Now with "your" threatened effective destruction of this season, I can no longer purchase tickets for the the third week of October. You sir, better than anyone else, should know with the many threats against the arts today, without your help, or perhaps, with it, we could lose this greatest icon of American performing culture. Now, please do your job!

Jul. 24 2014 01:19 PM
Sam from Goddard, KS

Uh, Parsifal was not done on a dung heap. In fact it was one of the more effective recent productions.

Jul. 24 2014 12:12 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

ONCE CLOSED, OPERA COMPANIES TEND TO CEASE TO EXIST. The professionals who may be helpful in working out agreements and coordination of vital activities will have gone on to other salaried positions and are unlikely to risk their income for a conditional arrangement that may not last. Appealing to the lowest common denominator may be OK in sports, but it will not work out in the serious art forms or in science. Whatever one's tastes and background, it is important to sustain and support the masterpieces, the icons of one's civilization. Fads do not last. We owe it to future generations as well as our own to secure the traditions and achievements of geniuses who gave their all and usually did not benefit greatly financially.

Jul. 24 2014 11:32 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I was shocked when I read that Parsifal was done on a dung heap. Whatever happened to moderation Mr. Gelb? Or shame?

Jul. 24 2014 11:03 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I second Ms. Nardone and Mr. Broecking's comments wholeheartedly and emphatically. Mr. Gelb's justifiable claim to fame was producing the film "Horowitz: the Last Romantic" years ago. Let him return to recordings and video productions and leave arts management to those who have proven working experience.

Jul. 24 2014 09:47 AM
Mary McMurtery from Macomb, IL

I question referring to "The Met" as an individual human being. Can we not use the man's name, general manager Peter Gelb? Do we really want to identify him as "The Met?" Surely not....THE MET to me and hopefully most are the myriad people who make up the labor force--the very individuals who are being disregarded, in my opinion. There would be NO MET without these incredible artists of all stripes. NO ART of the highest caliber. Until Peter Gelb gets on the stage, backstage, in the pit, in the wings, in the house, in the box office, etc. and can successfully put on a one-man opera that sells millions of dollars and astounds critics and audiences alike, I will not refer to him as "The Met." I hope others will refrain from doing so as well.

Jul. 24 2014 09:39 AM
Arden Broecking from Connecticut

Forgive in advance my emotional words. I am a retired critic,and I diected opera for many years.
The Metropolitan Opera doesn't need to lock out its hardworking artists! It needs a new general manager!
The appalling productions this man has allowed to happen on that stage -
"Parsifal" done on dung heap with open graves and a revolting bloodbath and "Faust with nuclear explosions and what looked like zombies - only examples. The "ring" grew on me because of the genius and intelligence of the lighting designer.
I think we've had enough of this man. Fortunately, both productions I
mentioned, and most of the others I heard were wonderfully sung. I can'e help wondering why Mr, Gelb believes ugliness like this is acceptable. There's nothing wrong with innovation, as long as the composer's intent is respected, but totally allowing the "directors" to destroy the intent without that respect is one of the met's in financial trouble. People aren't writing the checks more! So don't blame the unions for not wanting their hard work and artistry to be to be damaged. Blame the man who is permitting and encouraging this to happen. all of this to happen!

Jul. 24 2014 09:04 AM
Shelly Finkelstein from Newark, NJ

Peter Gelb's threatened lockout of the Met orchestra is a misguided, ill considered, "tone deaf" approach to these negotiations. This never would have happened with Joseph Volpe in charge. Query who should really be locked out of the Met?

Jul. 24 2014 08:59 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Peter Gelb: Opera goers will not pay their hard-earned cash to see those shoddy, vulgar, productions. Also, that Tosca bordered on soft-porn. You should be ashamed. Word is out about these productions. There is enough c--p in the popular culture.

Jul. 24 2014 07:04 AM
Rosanna from NYC

I'm inclined to agree with the unions' charge that the Met management has wasted money on several of the new productions in recent yrs, and sadly enough, in the Italian repertory especially. Verdi's "Attila", "La Traviata", and "Rigoletto" were savaged, also Bondy's redo of Puccini's "Tosca" with its gross Act II, and Verdi's "Ballo" succeeded only due to Radvanovsky-Hvorostovsky-Alvarez's stellar performances. During one intermission last season a gentleman seated near me opined that "Most of the new productions are excess bosoms and ugly decor ...", to which his wife nodded in agreement. Then they added that Gelb should realize many patrons shell out heavily for babysitters, parking, etc. to attend the Met so they shouldn't be expected to pay higher ticket prices to see vulgarity. The cast, orchestra, and chorus are what most opera patrons come for, not tacky productions that Gelb seems to favor.

Jul. 24 2014 03:10 AM
D. Lucian Iliesiu from New York, NY

Certainly musicians deserve to earn good incomes through their participation to Met. Opera's productions! But, the stagehands are certainly super-overpaid, via taking-advantage of various situations, as far as I know, if you compare their importance relative to what essentially is above-all "a musical experience"! I sustained myself -- partially by being a stagehand and also lighting-and-sound-operator [besides doing the set and lighting designs for the same productions] -- for 12 theater shows of small companies in Toronto, Canada during the 1970s, while being a student in architecture and planning at "U of T."
D. Lucian Iliesiu [RA]

Jul. 24 2014 03:06 AM

Remind me to make alternate plans for Sept. 22.

Jul. 24 2014 01:55 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

As written previously on these pages,there needs to be serious,behind-the-scenes negotiation in earnest,and the complete cessation of the public posturing,and negotiation in the media that has befouled the proceedings to this point.The behavior of Peter Gelb and the union leaders,and the desecration of the MET by the vandals created a contemptible situation in which the operagoing public will be forced to suffer.

Jul. 23 2014 06:02 PM

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