Metropolitan Opera to lock out stagehands as contract talks stall

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Metropolitan Opera to lock out stagehands as contract talks stall
Empty seating in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Sept. 14, 2020. In one of the most serious labor disputes to erupt in the culture world since the coronavirus pandemic halted performances around the globe, the Metropolitan Opera said on Monday, Dec. 7, that it planned to lock out its stagehands at midnight after the union representing the workers balked at the company’s demands for pay cuts. Victor Llorente/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As performing arts institutions around the world scramble to survive a pandemic that has closed their theaters for months, the Metropolitan Opera said on Monday that it would lock out its stagehands after failing to reach an agreement on long-term pay cuts with their union.

And just across the plaza at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic announced a new contract with its musicians — one that includes significant pay cuts over the coming years.

The Met’s lockout and the Philharmonic’s labor deal make it clear that arts organizations expect their financial pain to last, even if the pandemic subsides over the coming months.

The Met has asked for a 30% pay reduction from many of its workers, a figure that would be cut in half once its box-office revenue reached prepandemic levels. The agreement at the Philharmonic establishes 25% cuts to the musicians’ base pay for the first three years of the contract, reducing to 10% cuts by September 2024. Neither institution expects to resume live performances until next fall; even then, the box office is not likely to bounce back right away.

“There is going to be a road to recovery, and we’re on it,” Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, said in an interview. “If we can make that journey more quickly, we will immediately share that with our musicians.”

The Philharmonic’s players have been paid 75% of their base pay since May. At the Met, tensions are higher because most of the company’s workforce has been furloughed without pay since April.

The Met says that it needs to cut labor costs significantly if it is to survive until and after it reopens. It has offered to begin paying many employees up to $1,500 a week if their unions agree to contracts that include substantial long-term cuts.

The unions have bristled at the request, saying that their members cannot handle such a long-term financial hit after going many months without pay. After talks with the powerful union that represents the Met’s roughly 300 stagehands, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, failed to yield an agreement this weekend, the Met announced that it planned to lock out the union’s workers.

“I realize it is incredibly painful what we’re asking them to do,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview. “But what we’re trying to do is keep the Met alive, and the only way to achieve that is to reduce our costs.”

Of course the lockout will not have its usual effect during the pandemic, when few Met stagehands are working; only a few dozen stagehands have recently been at the opera house, Gelb said. But more were set to return later this month to begin constructing the sets for the operas that the Met plans to stage next fall, when it hopes to reopen.

After the Met’s lockout begins at midnight on Tuesday, Gelb said, the stagehands who are currently working on projects like maintaining stage mechanisms will no longer be able to work. He added that if an agreement was not reached by the spring and summer, when the Met usually ramps up its set construction, many more employees would end up out of work.

James J. Claffey Jr., president of Local 1, said in an interview on Monday that during bargaining negotiations he had suggested a lesser pay cut, but that his offer was rejected. No stagehands were willing to take a 30% cut, he added.

“To do this during a deadly virus is just ridiculous,” Claffey said of the lockout. “But that’s their leverage at this point.”

Gelb said Local 1’s proposal was insignificant in terms of addressing the problems the Met faced.

The Met has asked other unions whose contracts have not yet expired, like those that represent its orchestra musicians and chorus, to open negotiations early and agree to the cuts. In exchange, many of their members would be able to begin receiving partial paychecks for the first time in months. So far, those unions have not agreed to reopen their contracts early.

The union that represents the Met’s orchestra said on Monday that the company’s plan for cutbacks would “gut their contract for decades to come.”

Under the Philharmonic’s new contract, the musicians will see their pay gradually increase until the contract ends in September 2024, though at that point the players will still be paid less than they were before the coronavirus pandemic struck. The cuts will amount to more than $20 million in musicians’ wages over the course of the contract, the head of the players’ negotiating committee said in a news release.

The deal also includes bonus payments starting in 2022 if the orchestra’s financial performance exceeds expectations, as well as a provision for up to 10 Sunday performances per season. (The Met introduced regular Sunday matinees last year.)

Borda said that an important step in reaching a deal was transparency about the Philharmonic’s financial status and plans, which helped make clear the need for cuts that could extend beyond the duration of the pandemic.

“Are we happy about it? Absolutely not,” she said of the cuts. “Did we all decide that it was necessary? Yes.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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