Metropolitan Opera’s Salary Cut Demands Force Unions To Plan Strike

NEW YORK–Deep salary cut demands, which its unions say are unjustified, and a company threat to close down, at least temporarily, are combining to force members of the 16 unions at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera to plan to strike, if necessary.

And with contracts expiring July 31, it’s increasingly looking like it may be necessary.

One Met union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, is warning its members the Met may lock workers out if it doesn’t get its way.

Met General Manager Peter Gelb demands $180 million in pay cuts from the unions, including AGMA, Musicians Local 802 and Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) Locals 794 (broadcast technicians), 1 (carpenters and stage hands), 829 (artists and designers), 751 (ticket sellers), 764 (costume shop workers) and 798 (stylists).

Gelb says the $180 million equals a 16 percent pay cut.  In radio interviews, he portrays the unions as refusing to give back even a penny of pay.  And the Guardian reported another Gelb threat: That the Met would have to file for bankruptcy protection within three years unless it got its way.  And the paper quoted British opera general managers as refuting Gelb’s stands.

The unions reply they’re willing to sit down with Gelb to discuss cost-cutting measures. The Met ran a $2.8 million deficit last year, on a $311 million budget.  But they say cuts can easily occur elsewhere.  They cite Gelb’s high pay and the $169,000 he spent on one set of painted poppies for a production of Prince Igor as examples of inflated costs.

Local 1 also noted its members’ workload multiplied due to new requirements for the Met’s HDTV broadcasts nationwide, while its labor costs have risen 2.1 percent annually since 1997. The 1997 Met budget was $190 million, Local 1 noted.

Joe Hartnett, director of the stagecraft department and spokesman for all the IATSE locals, noted Gelb himself just turned back 10 percent of his most recent compensation hike.  The hike was 26 percent, the Met’s tax forms, which are public because it is a non-profit organization, show.  Gelb made $1.8 million in pay and compensation before his turnback.

“We don’t see how you save the Met by cutting the onstage and backstage talent responsible for presenting the greatest operas in the world, while avoiding all discussion of bloated management salaries, repeated cost overruns, failed productions and poorly executed marketing and sales strategies,” Hartnett added.

“The real issue isn’t worker compensation; the real issue is a management team with big dreams and a credit card that has no limits,” the IATSE unions said in a joint statement.

“We agree” that “to save the Met Opera, Gelb and our unions will have to sit, talk and compromise.  Our members are more than ready to do our part.  We understand the audience, cost structure and commercial environment in which the Met operates has changed.

“It is a challenge, however, to negotiate with a general manager who vastly increased spending but whose grand opera experiment has not only failed to increase attendance, but has failed in the process to retain the audience committed to live operas,” IATSE unions said.

Musicians President Tino Gagliardi said other Met giveback demands – sharply higher payments for health insurance and work rule changes – would, with the pay slashes, produce real cuts for Met orchestra members ranging from 25 percent to 38 percent.  He also notes the avant garde operas Gelb champions to draw younger customers have not done as well at the box office as classic operas have.  Gagliardi calls the avant garde revivals failed experiments.