NEW YORK, N.Y.— “To be a good man? Sure, who wouldn’t want to be one?… But circumstances just aren’t so,” Herr Peachum sings in Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera’s backstage workers, who’ve been out of work since March 2020 and locked out since December, charge that Met General Manager Peter Gelb hasn’t shown even that minimal level of good intentions.
“Peter Gelb is using the pandemic to gut our contracts. No other company has asked for what this company is asking for,” Carl Mullert, national business agent for International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees USA 829, told LaborPress as hundreds of opera workers and supporters gathered for a rally in front of Lincoln Center May 13. “In the middle of a pandemic where American workers are losing jobs, he’s sending our work overseas. That’s disgraceful.”
Gelb and the Met’s management are demanding a permanent 30% pay cut for all union workers from singers to stagehands, according to IATSE Local One, as well as work-rule changes unrelated to the pandemic. In December, after Local One repeatedly rejected those demands, the 350 stagehands the union represents — set builders, lighting and sound technicians, and more — were locked out. That also closed the doors to other IATSE unions, including Local 764, costume-makers and dressers, and USA 829, set designers and painters.
“We were absolutely prepared to make a deal covering expenses and problems during the pandemic,” IATSE President Matt Loeb told the crowd. But those accommodations would have had to be temporary, he added.
Circumstances just aren’t so, the Met’s management contends. “The Met is a union house and has no desire to undermine Local One or any of our other 14 unions,” it said in a statement. “However, having lost more than $150 million in box-office revenues over the past 14 months, we are facing the worst economic crisis in the 137-year history of the Met and must reduce our costs in order to survive.”
It said it hopes to resume negotiations with the stagehands, “who are the highest paid stagehands in the world, with average salaries of $185,000.” It also disputed Local One’s claims that it is demanding a permanent 30% pay cut, saying, “the reductions we are seeking are approximately 20% of the total average stagehand compensation of $285,000.”
That math is not incompatible with the union’s claims. Both a 20% reduction of $285,000 in salary and benefits and a 30% reduction of a $185,000 salary work out to about $56,000 a year.
Half of that cut, management said, would “be restored when our box office returns to pre-pandemic levels.” The other half, it didn’t say, would be permanent.
“In order for the Met to reopen in the fall, as scheduled, the stagehands and the other highest-paid Met union members need to accept the reality of these extraordinarily challenging times,” the statement concluded.
Local One accuses management of bargaining in bad faith. For the last six negotiating sessions before the lockout, union President James J. Claffey told the rally, it came to the table with a nine-page list of concessions and told the union it had to accept them all if it wanted a deal.
“You don’t come to the table with nine pages of demands and say, ‘take it or leave it,’” Claffey said. “The cuts they’re looking for would take us back to 1999.”
Since the lockout, there has been “no discussion — formally or informally” between the union and management, Local One spokesperson Jamie Horwitz told LaborPress.
The Met is one of the perennial problem employers in the city, New York City Central Labor Council head Vincent Alvarez said.
It has already outsourced production work for two operas, Rigoletto and Don Carlos, to a company in Wales, and hired a non-union company on the West Coast to build sets for Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which is scheduled to be the premiere when the opera reopens for the fall season.
The Met has also outsourced musicians’ work, American Federation of Musicians Local 802 President Adam Krauthamer said, and has made similar contract demands to them.
“They saw this pandemic as an opportunity… to take things from you,” Krauthamer told the rally. “We are willing to do our part to make sure the Met survives. It’s a world-class institution because you have dedicated your lives to it.”
Smaller and lesser-known opera houses have managed to pay their workers during the pandemic and not asked for more than temporary concessions, noted Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side.
“We are the glitter. We are the gold. We make it happen, we make it beautiful,” Local 829 member Kathryn Bloss said. “We want to get back to work.”