Met Opera Singers' Union Braces for Tough Contract Talks

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The union representing the singers, dancers and production staff at the Metropolitan Opera is telling its members to expect an “epic battle” in upcoming contract talks.

The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) said on Tuesday evening that it has warned its members that the opera company will lock them out if they don’t accept pay cuts of 10 to 15 percent and other, unspecified work rule changes.

In a sharply worded press release, AGMA executive director Alan Gordon said he is advising singers' agents to "begin to explore other work opportunities for their clients" and to "prepare for the absence of Met income in the fall and winter of 2014, and perhaps even longer." The current contract expires on July 31.

In a response, the Met did not address the predictions of a lockout – which would prevent musicians from working and receiving a paycheck – but cited recent financial difficulties.

"The Met’s primary goal is to safeguard the long-term future of the institution, while maintaining its strength and stability, protecting the livelihood of our employees, and doing all we can to best serve opera lovers," the statement read. "While negotiations have yet to even begin with the unions representing our employees and no proposals have been made, there are significant economic challenges that we face, including a recent decline in ticket sales – an unfortunate situation that we share with other opera companies across the nation."

The Met’s box office dropped off somewhat in 2013, to $93 million from the previous year’s $99 million, according to a financial-disclosure statement that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal recently examined. Attendance fell from 84 percent to 79 percent capacity, lower than previous projections.

Last month, Met general manager Peter Gelb also said he will take over labor negotiations from Joseph Volpe, who has been a lead negotiator for the company. Union officials had welcomed the involvement of Volpe, a former Met carpenter who worked his way up to general manager.

In a letter to union members and their agents, AGMA's Gordon, who is known for his hardball tactics, warned, “Peter Gelb’s removal of Joseph Volpe from the renegotiation of the Met’s contracts, intending instead to negotiate the contracts himself, is a clear and unmistakable forewarning that Gelb wants to restructure labor relations at the Met.”

The union is due to make its first proposal on February 15, with a counter-proposal from the Met due on March 1. The current contract stipulates that negotiations wrap up by June 30, 2014.

Update, 7 pm: The contract with the Met Orchestra, which is governed by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, also expires in July. In an e-mail, the union president Tino Gagliardi said, "Local 802 has a longstanding bargaining history with the Met and I look forward to negotiating a fair agreement for the musicians."