Met Opera Warns Unions of a Lockout

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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: