Unions Have Proof to Bolster their Claims, Gelb Does Not

One of the things about the Met’s labor dispute that has disturbed me has been the fact that Peter Gelb and his supporters have never offered any real evidence to back up their claims. Instead, Gelb has simply stated that opera is in a state of decline, and that union salaries are crippling the institution.

But I have seen nothing concrete to bolster this position.

For example, if the Met truly believed that attendance was down because attendance was down everywhere, they would put together a chart ranking its performance against 25 or so peer companies, showing specific and aggregate figures, plus future projections. The analysis would measure several criteria, including ticket revenue, number of tickets sold, and paid capacity. And, it would show options, such as changes in the size of productions, number of performances, and such. This, and only this kind of study could show that opera was in a financial decline across the country, and point at the specific implications for the Met as a part of this trend.

Where is this study?

If unions were clearly, and unambiguously the cause of the Met’s financial troubles, it should be easy to prove. There should be some sort of comparative chart that shows labor costs with union and non-union workers. Peer-to-peer comparisons. Analyses. That sort of thing.

Where are these analyses?

Also, Gelb dismisses suggestions that cost overruns are a factor, essentially arguing that all expenditures are normal costs of doing business. Take the case of the controversial poppy field from Prince Igor. Critics have labeled it a wasteful extravagance, but Gelb argues that dollar for dollar it was a bargain, considering how much sets cost. Very well… prove it. Show us the complete production costs. And show the real world costs associated with similar sets, or other options the Met considered.

Where is this side-by-side comparison?

Another point Gelb has repeatedly made is that the costs for new productions have been underwritten by donors, and as such are fully funded. For example, the recent Ring cycle cost $19 million, and was completely covered by a $20 million donation provided by an interested donor—therefore, no cost overruns. Other insiders, however, have suggested the real costs were closer to $30 million, and represented a huge drain on the bottom line. Again, this should be easy to prove—open the books and prove the critics wrong.

Where are these figures?

All in all, I am stunned by what’s happening here. Gelb is running from interview to interview saying that the Met is teetering on the brink of collapse, and huge structural change is required to stave off disaster. More importantly, these huge structural changes have to be implemented immediately, before it’s too late.

But for proof, he wants us to rely on his good word alone. He’s asking for sacrificial concessions from his workers… based only on his assurances?

And what’s perhaps worse, that’s all he’s asking for: union concessions. It feels rather convenient that although the Met is apparently about to dissolve into bankruptcy, the only thing necessary to save it is… union concessions.

Isn’t there anything else to be done? Isn’t there any way to streamline operations, trim costs, or otherwise solve the budget dilemma?

Interestingly enough, these questions and concerns have been answered… by the union.

While Gelb refuses to provide any real world data to support his claims, or to provide any context for how he reached his numbers, Local 802 has done the necessary background research to show why the costs have run up, pinpointing what the problem really is. It has crunched the numbers, made the comparisons, and come up with a very different conclusion as to where the fault lies. After taking this critical step, it then sets out to come up with a solution. One that is not based on abstract notions or ideology, but on the Met’s real-world numbers.

In short, they’ve found a different way to save money without resorting to the damaging steps proposed by Gelb.

Their press release makes for fascinating reading.  And, following the link reveals a vast number of charts and graphs that clearly and colorfully show what the real problems are—exactly the kind of information the Met has thus far failed to provide.  The unions offer proof.

Yes, I’m sure Gelb will dismiss it out of hand because he has shown nothing but ideological contempt for anything associated with “the unions.” But the union’s position is so well argued, and so well documented, that I suspect it will be difficult to completely brush it aside….


Associated Musicians of Greater New York
Local 802, AFM


Friday, July 25, 2014

Laura Dolan / Geto & de Milly, Inc.
212-686-4551 x715 / 917-650-1420

Met Orchestra Musicians Detail Failed Management and Lack of Artistic Vision of Met Opera General Manager Peter Gelb

Musicians Propose $20 Million in Cost-Savings for the Met Opera

New York, NY–Friday, July 25, 2014–Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musicians today have commenced negotiations with Met Opera management including General Manager Peter Gelb. The union and the musicians released the attached report detailing the failed management and flawed artistic vision of Gelb during his 8-year tenure at the helm of the Met. The report analyzes the dismal reception of Gelb’s expensive new productions by opera critics and patrons and also recommends specific strategies the Met could employ to save $20 Million annually by curtailing Gelb’s lavish spending and realizing scheduling efficiencies.

Gelb has stated in the press that the Met is facing financial ruin and possible bankruptcy, while refusing to provide the musicians, the media or the public any evidence of such a crisis. He has announced that he must impose draconian cuts of over $30 Million, yet has refused to substantiate/document the reasons. No one yet knows why Gelb is asking for over $30 Million in cuts when his reported deficit is only $2.8 Million in the context of a $327 million annual budget.

What is known, however, is that under Gelb the Met’s labor costs have remained flat, while the Met Opera budget has increased by nearly 50% ($105 Million). This is in large part due to Gelb’s overspending on critically panned, unpopular productions, as well as poor scheduling, inferior marketing and extensive management waste. The musicians are in favor or new and artistically daring productions but want to see them managed expertly, whereby the Met is able to achieve artistic success while living within their budget.

Link to MET Orchestra/Local 802 findings on Peter Gelb’s record of managerial and artistic failure; Musicians’ recommendations on cost-saving efficiencies for the
Met Opera.

Even if—after an objective analysis—the Met can be said to be facing some degree of financial challenge, it is clear what the solution isn’t. It isn’t slashing the compensation of the world-class performers and other craftspeople on whom the Met’s excellence and success relies. If Gelb’s cuts were implemented it would be impossible for the Met to recruit and retain the best musicians in the world who today comprise the company. The quality of the Opera would rapidly deteriorate, and Gelb will have succeeded in further decimating the audience that already has been diminished by his failed productions.

The musicians had hoped to purse good-faith negotiations with opera management. Unfortunately, Gelb has pursued a cynical strategy calculated to result in a lockout of his artists and craftspeople and imperil the upcoming Met Opera season. For months, Gelb has purposely refused to provide essential financial information that would have allowed substantive, good-faith negotiations to proceed, instead making erroneous claims in the press in the run-up to his long-planned lockout. His callousness, combined with his attempt to cover up his failed management and lack of artistic vision that has resulted in declining audiences and plummeting ticket sales, jeopardizes the livelihoods of his employees and the many businesses in New York City’s cultural sector and the Lincoln Center area that depend on the Metropolitan Opera for their incomes.

The loss to the City’s economy as a result of a lockout will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars – first, the $327 million that the Met spends on salaries, sets, costumes and on many other vendors/services will be lost; on top of that, the losses to restaurants and hotels, especially those in the immediate vicinity of Lincoln Center, will be devastating given that the Met has 3,800 seats and its audience represents a high proportion of local restaurant and hotel patronage during the opera season.

The musicians believe the Met’s problems are solvable without a lockout and a cancelled season, which will be a major blow to New York City culture and disastrous for Opera’s financial health. They wish the Met to remain an engine of the cultural and tourism economy—and continue to thrill both the Met Opera’s loyal audience and the young people and non-traditional audiences who will carry this great art form into its next generation.


So again, if the Met had a slam-dunk case about unions or a quantifiable decline in opera attendance all over the country, it would be making that case loudly and repeatedly at every chance they could. If the evidence was unambiguous, Gelb and company would be ridiculously transparent, showing everyone their numbers and being crystal clear in all their data. There would be daily briefings, bolstered by charts, graphs, PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos. Everyone involved in the organization would be working at, walking the skeptical through the evidence so everyone could understand it.

But instead, we have dissembling, opaque finances, and easily-disproven statements.

The union, however, has provided actual data—data that proves its point.

Again, this is reminiscent of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, where the Orchestra’s leadership repeatedly stated that union salaries were crippling it, but refused to show the data that supposedly backed this up. And when data was pried out of the organization, it was obvious why it was reluctant to share it—it didn’t back up their assertions. On the contrary, the audience advocacy group Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOS MN) examined the data and determined that the Orchestra’s financial problems were caused by mismanagement of funds, creative bookkeeping, and a reduction in the number of concerts performed.  Union salaries had little to do with the financial crisis.  But what is really important is that SOSMN was so convinced that the numbers proved its case that it shared them with the public.  Openly.  The group scheduled media events, posted videos… and took questions from the press and the community.

In short, when the numbers back you up, you publicize them.

The fact that the Met has been so slippery about its numbers makes it hard to believe the data truly bolsters Gelb’s overall position. And the fact that the union does have clear, easy-to-understand data that backs up its position makes it hard to take Gelb seriously at all.

 [Edit:  the Met did make a provisional response to this proposal… my response can be found here.]



7 thoughts on “Unions Have Proof to Bolster their Claims, Gelb Does Not

  1. When I first read about this controversy in the NYTimes, I couldn’t help but think about the parallel with the MN Orchestra board, the recent lockout and their supposed problem over salaries and attendance. Now it seems almost a textbook picture of a very similar problem, the only difference being, it is in NY City (a much bigger venue than MN and the MN Orch) and a different musical entity. Otherwise it is much the same: lack of transparency, dug in positions by the executive, union busting tactics and lack of understanding of the difference between non-profit arts groups and for profit widget making businesses,


  2. Pingback: A Response to the Met’s Response | Mask of the Flower Prince

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  5. Pingback: Clichés Abound in WSJ’s Analysis of the Met Opera | Mask of the Flower Prince

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