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'We are the Met': Opera unions rally against proposed pay cuts
Union members rally in New York on May 13, 2021, in opposition to the Metropolitan Opera's lockout of its stagehands and management’s demands for deep and lasting pay cuts it says are needed to survive the coronavirus pandemic. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs and Matt Stevens

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As New York prepares for the long-awaited reopening of its performing arts sector, with several Broadway shows putting tickets on sale for the fall, it is still unclear whether the Metropolitan Opera will be able to reach the labor agreements it needs to bring up its heavy golden curtain for the gala opening night it hopes to hold in September.

There have been contrasting scenes playing out at the opera house in recent days.

On the hopeful side, the Met is preparing for two concerts in Queens on Sunday — the company’s first live, in-person performances featuring members of its orchestra and chorus and its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, since the start of the pandemic. And it recently reached a deal on a new contract with the union that represents its chorus, soloists, dancers and stage managers, among others.

But the serious tensions that remain with the company’s other unions were put on vivid display outside Lincoln Center on Thursday, as hundreds of union members rallied in opposition to the Met’s lockout of its stagehands and management’s demands for deep and lasting pay cuts it says are needed to survive the pandemic. The workers’ message was clear: their labor makes the Met what it is, and without them, the opera can’t reopen.

“That’s not the Met Opera,” said James J. Claffey Jr., president of Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents Met stagehands, pointing over to the opera house. “The greatest stage, the largest stage — it’s empty. It’s nothing without the people that are right in front of me right now.”

Masked stagehands, musicians, ticket sellers, wardrobe workers and scenic artists packed the designated rally space, greeting each other with elbow bumps after more than a year of separation. They wore union T-shirts and carried signs with messages like, “We Paint the Met” and “We Dress the Met.” The same chant — “We are the Met!” — was repeated over and over throughout the rally.

The protest made clear the significant labor challenges that the Met must overcome to successfully return in the fall.

Although the opera season is not scheduled to begin until September, the company will need to reach agreements with Local One, which represents its stagehands, much sooner to load in sets and hold technical rehearsals over the summer. The Met has been hoping to bring a significant number of stagehands back to work beginning in June, but Claffey said union members were holding out for a labor agreement.

The Met locked out its stagehands in December after contract negotiations stalled. The union has been fiercely opposed to the Met’s assertion that it needs to cut the payroll costs for its highest-paid unions by 30%, with an intention to restore half of those cuts when ticket revenues and core donations returned to pre-pandemic levels (the Met has said the plan would cut the take-home pay of those workers by about 20%).

“Regardless of the Met’s plans, Local One is not going to work without a contract,” Claffey said in an interview. “There’s a lockout when you didn’t need us, but when you really need us, it’s going to transition from a lockout to a strike.”

The Met said in a statement on Thursday that it had “no desire to undermine” the unions it works with but that it had lost more than $150 million in earned revenues since the pandemic forced it to close, and that it needs to cut costs to survive. The statement said the Met had “repeatedly” invited the stagehands’ union to return to the bargaining table.

“In order for the Met to reopen in the fall, as scheduled,” the statement said, “the stagehands and the other highest paid Met union members need to accept the reality of these extraordinarily challenging times.”

The rally was organized by Local One, which represents the Met’s roughly 300 stagehands. Speaking outside the David H. Koch Theater because metal barriers blocked the path to the Metropolitan Opera House, union leaders railed against the monthslong lockout that has prevented its workers from returning to the Met in full force.

“A lot of us stagehands have had to pivot or leave the industry entirely,” said Gillian Koch, a Local One member at the rally. “And we are showing up to say that is not OK, and we all deserve to have our careers after this pandemic.”

Tensions rose even higher when the stagehands learned that the Met had outsourced some of its set construction to nonunion shops elsewhere in this country and overseas. (In a letter to the union last year, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, wrote that the average full-time stagehand cost the Met $260,000 in 2019, including benefits; the union disputes that number, saying that when the steady extra stagehands who work at the Met regularly, and sometimes full time, are factored in, the average pay is far lower.)

The stagehand lockout has not been absolute. Claffey said that at the Met’s request, he has allowed several Local One members to work at the Met under the terms of the previous contract, particularly to help the union wardrobe staff who are on duty.

But although the Met has now reached a deal with the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents its chorus, it has yet to reach one with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra. Both groups were furloughed without pay for nearly a year after the opera house closed before they were brought back to the bargaining table with the promise of partial pay of up to $1,543 per week.

Adam Krauthamer, the president of Local 802, pointed out that because of the Met’s labor divisions, other performing arts institutions were ahead of the Met in reopening.

“Broadway is selling tickets; the Philharmonic is doing performances; they’re building stages right before our eyes,” Krauthamer said in a speech at the rally. “The Met is the only place that continues to try to destroy its workers’ contracts.”

The rally had the backing of several local politicians who spoke, including Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, and the New York state Sens. Jessica Ramos and Brad Hoylman, who had a message for the Met’s general manager: “Mr. Gelb, could you leave the drama on the stage, please?”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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