Mr. Gelb’s Disastrous Interview

My Goodness. To my readers, I offer an apology. I had hoped that with the resolution of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, my blog could move away from discussing labor unrest, allowing me to cover topics that were more fun and entertaining.

Alas, a nearly-identical labor dispute is coming to a boil over at the Metropolitan Opera… and I can’t look away.  I thought that after sharing my thoughts over the weekend (say, here, here, and here), I could step back and take a break.

But it seems that fate has other ideas.

Many thanks to Drew McManus over at Adaptistration, who pounced on an interview given by the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. As Drew points out, this one is explosive, and is already raising the hackles of other writers.

Well… I can’t resist providing commentary on my own.

If you’re not already sick of reading my thoughts about the Met, please read on:

* * *

“We need to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make them take this seriously,” Gelb said in an interview Thursday. “The short-term pain is something we’d have to live with in order to provide long-term survival.”

Wow. Just… wow.

Mr. Gelb, I hope you’re paying your public relations people well. I cannot imagine a more inflammatory statement to make to the press—one that makes you look more petty, paternalistic, and completely out-of-touch. Coincidentally, this statement also closely mirrors a statement made by the Minnesota Orchestra leadership explaining why they chose to lockout the Orchestra musicians: “[W]e were obligated to make the decision to hold musicians accountable for a counterproposal.”

Let me be clear… the union musicians and workers are not your underage children; they are your partners in negotiation. Partners who have legitimate concerns. The fact that you don’t like their concerns doesn’t mean they are somehow illegitimate or un-serious.

And it is shocking that you seem to believe that you get to determine how seriously people are taking this situation, and that you unilaterally get to choose what steps to take as a consequence. Mr. Gelb, you are directly toying with their livelihood… their mortgages, their children’s college funds, their healthcare and more. Trust me—they’re taking this very seriously.

In fact, one could reasonably argue that it is you who has refused to take this situation seriously. You are willing to inflict direct financial pain on hundreds of full-time workers, thousands of additional personnel, and the city as a whole simply to make an economic point. Moreover, you have refused to provide real, concrete financial data that supports your position, or even to negotiate in good faith. Plus, you have repeatedly refused to take any responsibility for your actions.

And I’m astonished that you are characterizing the potential damage to the Met as “short term pain.” Everywhere this has been tried in the last few years, the damage has been crippling. As Drew McManus lays out on his blog, “Anyone who has been paying attention to the field since 2008 has seen the devastating impact poorly designed work stoppages (both lockouts and strikes) have on an institution; just look at what happened in Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville, Minnesota, and St. Paul. The Met is no exception to this new rule and you can expect that a bitter work stoppage will reap equally devastating results.”

So, what do we need to do to make you take this seriously?

I would also like to point out that others who have taken this paternalistic approach in similar situations have lost—and lost badly. For example, the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Lead Negotiator Richard Davis, Board Chair Jon Campbell, and Orchestra President and CEO were all forced out of the organization once the lockout ended. They were ejected from the organization because it was widely realized that they could never effectively lead the recovery—their ouster was a necessary first step to begin the healing. So the board got rid of them.

And interestingly enough, only a few months before he was forced out, Michael Henson had had his contract extended, too….

That [$2.8 million] deficit might not sound like a lot, but Gelb said it “could have easily been $20 million to $30 million if I had not been calling up our donors and getting them to fill the gap.”

Oh Good Heavens. Mr. Gelb, it is somewhat embarrassing to point out that the Met is a 501 (c) 3, not-for-profit organization. This means your organization engages in fundraising. This means, by definition, that you will always be calling up donors and getting them to fill the gap. That’s what a non-profit does, every single year. You make it sound like you are a commercial theater, which you are not. Please stop with the mendacity.

Look, I get it, fundraising is hard. But donor fatigue is not in any way tied to you unionized workforce. To be blunt, it is a problem of your fundraising team. And as has been pointed out again and again, there are other ways to reduce costs at the Met, ways that will probably have a higher rate of return, without crippling your workforce or your artistic product. The fact that you are only targeting union concessions smacks of ideology, not economics.

If the unions would agree to concessions, Gelb said, the savings of more than $30 million annually would inspire the board to carry through a plan to double the company’s relatively anemic endowment of $253 million and guarantee future financial security.

Mr. Gelb, you need to explain the quid pro quo logic here. It will “inspire” the board to “carry through” on a plan? That’s hardly a rock-solid guarantee. And if they love the organization, why aren’t the board members doing this anyway? Didn’t you just admit that there is already a plan ready to go, one that will be implemented as soon as board members are “inspired?” Refusing to take a critical step that can insure the long-term financial health of the organization just so they can extract maximum union concessions now is breathtakingly petty.

I could understand if the board was implementing a multi-faceted, comprehensive strategic plan to reform the Met’s finances, and both a capital campaign and union concessions were part of the mix. I might not agree with it, but I would understand the rationale. But Mr. Gelb, you’re describing something very different. There is no comprehensive plan. There is no vision. It’s just a case where the unions take sacrificial pay cuts for now in exchange for the possibility of undefined board actions sometime in the future. Would anyone find that to be a good bargain?

Gelb said administrative employees would see their compensation reduced by an amount equivalent to that of union members. He himself took a pay cut in April, lowering his base pay to $1.4 million a year.

Yes. But Mr. Gelb, it has been widely reported that before you took your “solidarity pay cut,” you gave yourself a hefty raise. Do you not see why this raises hackles?

“The people who work here are incredibly professional,” he said. “I admire them greatly and we had great mutual respect for each other, up until I asked them for a pay cut.

“Once the dust settles,” he added, the musicians “don’t have to love me to play well.”

I find it hard to believe that it was just the “pay cut” that caused people to lose respect for you.

This is such a jaw-dropping statement. Mr. Gelb, just based on your own words in this one interview, you have shown astonishing arrogance towards your workers, ignorance of industry-wide labor trends, and breathtaking hypocrisy.

And after all this, and all your work creating a hostile workplace, you expect everyone to treat you professionally… and to just suck it up and do their jobs as you want them to?

Mr. Gelb, I daresay you’ve become a poster child for a well-known business leadership phenomena known as “toxic leadership.” As Marcia Lynn Whicker described in her influential book, Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad, toxic leaders “Succeed by tearing others down. They glory in turf protection, fighting and controlling rather than uplifting followers.”  They are often bullies, and like all bullies are fundamentally weak and insecure. They frequently follow a “divide and conquer” approach to leadership—essentially establishing a culture where people are against each other and engendering a culture of fear and mistrust.

I’m sure many are wondering when you will start acting professionally, Mr. Gelb.

* * *

Based on this interview, I fear the situation is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.  And that makes me very sad.



8 thoughts on “Mr. Gelb’s Disastrous Interview

  1. According to Gelb: “We need to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make them take this seriously. . . . The short-term pain is something we’d have to live with in order to provide long-term survival.”

    When Gelb says “The short-term pain is something we’d have to live with,” does “we” mean he’s broadening the impact of the lockout to eliminate his own and all other staff and administrators’ salaries and benefits until settlement is reached? If so then maybe we can consider taking Mr. Gelb seriously.

    When the “we” included in the suffering one expects others to “live with” does not extend to the person inflicting the pain who is saying “we,” on the other hand, it serves as a classic definition of callous, arrogant sadism.


  2. As bad as the interview was, it isn’t like Alan Gordon is any better. Modt childish, petulant and inflammatory “negotiator” I’ve seen since, well…..Gelb. They both make it worse every time they open their mouths.


  3. Why doesn’t the Met just close the gap by renting out the LePage Ring Machine, so it can cover other houses in glory as it did for the Met? If the Met can spend $17 MM to build a row of rotating diving boards, surely other GMs will pay as much to rent it. Unless of course the whole endeavor was an extravagant waste of apparently limited resources. But that can’t be, because that would indicate some sort of culpability from the top of the org chart.


  4. I suggest they cut about half of their useless administrative positions – like secretaries for the secretaries of every department – and invest in hiring first-class artists. It would also help to stop hiring these ridiculous, no-nothing pseudo-Enfants Terribles stage directors with their over-priced BAD productions and their “innovative” concepts that rape the works they purport to display – and get some decent competent traffic directors in house who know the rep and produce workmanly and reeasonably priced stagings focused on the singers. Oh – and it helps to have someone on staff who knows a good singer from a breadbox. I think a lot of financial problems would clear up if great singing was once again the norm instead of the unusual. Or has the world forgotten that this is what opera should be all about – great singing?!


  5. I agree with chennirei. Bing had a partner and they shared a secretary–period. And, they produced incredibly well-sung, exciting performances night after night. In the past 30 years, the number of people in the administration has risen exponentially. It’s disgusting.


  6. Pingback: Reflections on Anthony Tommasini’s Piece in the Times | Mask of the Flower Prince

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