Merry Christmas [sic] from the MET

Merry Christmas! What better way to celebrate the joy and wonder of the season than by… picking a mean-spirited labor fight, when everyone is reeling from the pandemic!

And that’s just what Peter Gelb is planning for the Metropolitan Opera in New York: an aggressive labor action to lock out the MET’s stagehands. In a piece in the New York Times today, Mr. Gelb lays out the plan: he seeks to lock out its stagehands at midnight after the union representing the workers balked at the company’s demands for pay cuts.   

First, I want to say that as someone who is on the Board of an important arts organization, and as someone who is a professional fundraiser, no one is more aware of the financial challenges groups are struggling with right now. The pandemic is clobbering the arts world.

But it is… grating to have the MET generally, and Mr. Gelb specifically, arguing that the only way to meet the ongoing storm is through draconian cuts. Which will conveniently come exclusively at the expense of the workers trying to make the MET a success. And just as conveniently are a carbon copy of the arguments he made to force union concessions during the last MET labor dispute in 2014.

As a counter argument, the Minnesota Orchestra, which faced a major labor dispute of its own at nearly the exact same time as the MET’s last one, has gone on in a completely different direction. In response to the pandemic and the financial challenges it has unleashed, the Orchestra has made changes, negotiated cuts in good faith, and still gone ahead with presenting arts programming and delivering it to the community. No universal furloughs at all.  Moreover, the Orchestra has worked with our local PBS station and public radio to deliver performances live, in a virtual format. And best of all, the Orchestra has completely overhauled its programming so that it is much more innovative; each performance includes works by composers of color and/or women. They have done heroic work to keep their musicians and staff engaged… and paid.

So, it can be done.

The MET, however, gone in a different direction. It has furloughed everybody, and has once again decided that it’s going to cut its way toward prosperity. To justify this, it has pulled out—in some cases literally—the exact same talking points from the last major labor dispute in 2014. The weakness of the arguments back then made it clear that Mr. Gelb was interested not in sustainability, but rather in extracting union concessions as an end goal. And it seems that that is the same plan this year, too.

A few observations.

* * *

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.’”

Huh. As I mentioned, this is nearly exactly what Mr. Gelb said during the last major labor dispute, which came as part of the Great Recession. It is curious that warnings of “bankruptcy” or catastrophic financial ruin always tend to proliferate on the eve of new contract negotiations. And always, this catastrophe is either two or five years away, and cannot be stopped by any force on the planet other than union contract concessions.

“Of course the lockout will not have its usual impact during the pandemic, when few Met stagehands are working; only a few dozen stagehands have recently been at the opera house, Mr. 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.”

Which makes it unclear why Mr. Gelb is announcing his draconian actions rightnowthisveryminute. Perhaps to use the pandemic while it raging at its fiercest, and before inoculations start to change the dynamic?

“We will have no choice other than to lock out Local One employees, utilizing other temporary means to construct the sets.”

No other choice. None, whatsoever. So, the only choice is a couple guys with a staple gun and some scrap lumber they lifted off their brother-in-law’s construction site to make you a set for Aida.

A question, Mr. Gelb: do you think opera aficionados and tourists are going to pay top dollar to see productions with sets that they could see at their kid’s high school? Are those HD broadcasts going to look the same featuring performances that folks could see at a straight-up concert setting? Are donors going to pony up huge donations in support of a drab, cavernous stage? Is this a pathway for long-range sustainability… artistically or financially?

“He added that in 2019, the average cost to the Met of a full-time stagehand, including benefits, was $260,000…”

Huh. This is nearly an exact replay of the 2014 claim that Chorus members make $200,00 per year and need to take some cuts!  But as was repeatedly pointed out, the $200,000 figure had been taken out of context and willfully inflated in order to make a point. The New York Times investigated and found a chorister would more accurately make closer to $100,000. Specifically, the Times pointed out that under the contract’s rules, the base salary, which ranges from about $62,000 to $125,000 annually, accounts for only about half of the singers’ pay. The rest would come from extra money they receive for rehearsals, working more than four performances a week, working more than seven and a half hours a day and changing costumes during breaks, among other things. Things that were controlled by the MET, which scheduled activities in such a way that they resulted in higher pay due to overtime. So Mr. Gelb has no credibility on this matter… especially as he casually combines take home pay and the value of benefits to come up with A Big Scary Number.

Mr. Gelb has said that most of the pay cuts he is seeking could be achieved by changes to work rules.”

I mean, the laziness of making the identical argument that you made during the 2014 MET labor dispute.

First, I note that the press has reported that Mr. Gelb has gone without his salary and benefits since March, like everyone across the organization. Which is good. But is he also proposing equal cuts to his salary and benefits, over an equal timeline as the stagehands? I mean, as the MET’s highest paid employee, this reduction in pay would be a significant cost savings for the organization.

But also, Mr. Gelb, I’d point out that you are grossly mischaracterizing what you’re doing, and the real-world effect of the cuts you’re proposing. You suggest you’re only changing some abstract “work rules,” but you are clearly, at a fundamental level, impacting your workers’ weekly paychecks. There is nothing “abstract” about it. You aren’t innocently tinkering with a formula, but are making deliberate choices to cut a worker’s pay.

Take that tired “stagehands are making $260,000!” complaint you make. The stagehands aren’t making this amount because of impersonal forces acting beyond the realm of human understanding, but because in order to keep up with the weekly demands of the MET’s schedule, that’s the amount of time they must work. And again, this blithely overlooks your role in hiring and scheduling them. After all, this wasn’t some flash mob and ran onto the stage, built something and then shook you down for payment (reminiscent of those squeegee-laden windshield washer guys that used to haunt street corners). Their pay rates and pay scales are all known in advance. Knowing this, you hired them. They were working to fulfill your demands. So why are you so reluctant to pay them at the rate you knew you were supposed to be paying them— the going rate for their profession?

“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.”

A downside of bad faith negotiations, torching good will and blasting out a constant barrage of threats means that yes… it far more difficult to get concessions when you need them. Other organizations have worked with artists and workers to find win-win solutions, or at least solutions everyone can live with. That’s unlikely to happen at the MET as long as Mr. Gelb is in control.

“[Mr. Gelb] said that two-thirds of the Met’s annual spending — $200 million — goes to labor costs.”

My God… again?  We went over this during the 2014 dispute. The MET’s business is to put on operas. Which is made possible through the labor of the people working to, you know, put on operas.  Of course this is going to be the largest piece of the budgetary pie. This statement is as absurd as a restaurant owner complaining about all the money they have to pay for their chef, kitchen staff and servers. Mr. Gelb, what do you propose your funds should be spent on? Administrative overhead?

Also Mr. Gelb, you haven’t provided any rationale for why you should cut it, beyond simplistic notion that it’s a big number out of the budget. And an implication that “unions” are a bad thing to spend money on. What is your evidence that cutting that number will truly help? Are there other areas that you could cut that would have a much larger impact? Different cuts that lead to much greater efficiencies, or that would bring about a much larger rate of return?

We shouldn’t be reducing them by reducing our artistic productivity,’ he said of the company’s expenses. ‘Because that is the key to keeping donors on board and getting audiences to come back.’”

Forgive my naiveté, but aren’t the efforts of the stagehands inextricably tied up with this artistic productivity? Don’t you need the stagehands to be intricately involved in all aspects of the artistic production to make it a success? I mean, did the monoliths in the recent Ring productions become sentient, and simply move of their own volition (and if so, are you at least paying them for their effort?)? I admit that I’m far more familiar with concert venues rather than opera houses, but my experience has been that stagehands are critical to a performance’s success, and they have highly specialized skills that are also critical for success. I have to believe that is amplified by an order of magnitude in an opera house with sets, elaborate lighting, special effects, sound effects and more.

* * *

While we’re here, let’s also take a couple of quick looks at an earlier Times piece. An article on November 20, 2020 was filled with dire warnings about the possibility of a lockout, and has a few revealing tidbits.

“The unions that work with the Met are against making such significant concessions that could affect workers long after the most severe impacts of the pandemic subside, and have accused management of taking advantage of the outbreak in order to get them to agree to cost-cutting measures.”

And they are right to do so. Again, yes the pandemic is devastating arts organizations, in New York, across the United States, and around the world. Yes, action must be taken.

But the thing is we don’t know what the recovery will look like, when it will get started, or when arts organizations will feel the salutary effects. So locking in long-term draconian cuts rightthisveryminute makes no sense. Will folks, desperate to finally be able to get out the house, flock to venues? Will the stock market continue to skyrocket, taking art organizations’ endowments with them? Will new opportunities for virtual performances start to blossom?  We don’t know.  So why agree to punitive pay concessions for the long-term, making it hugely difficult to get back to the level they are today? It starts to look like the guiding principle here is simply winning union concessions. And hoping that the final artistic product will survive “death by a thousand cuts” to still attract high ticket sales and donations even after being sharply downgraded in quality.

And not to beat a dead horse, but the last labor dispute came about in the wake of the Great Recession. That too was billed as a “once in a generation catastrophe,” and at that time Mr. Gelb similarly claimed that the MET required instant, severe union concessions or that it was going to go bankrupt in two years. He didn’t get the cuts, and the bankruptcy didn’t happen.  But here we are six years later, and he’s making the same points for the same reasons.

“The Met’s finances were perilous even before the virus struck: its annual budget is $300 million a year, and it earns less than a third of that through box-office sales, leaving it heavily reliant on donors.”

I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation, or that anyone is buying this tired talking point.

Let’s be clear:  the MET is not a commercial enterprise.  It is not a for-profit business. The MET is a 501 (c) (3) not-for profit organization, as recognized by the IRS. That means the organization is a nonprofit—in structure, it is like the Humane Society, American Red Cross, or Habitat for Humanity. Like every other nonprofit in the country, its costs will be higher than its earned revenue. That is why it is classified as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. By definition, the MET will engage in fundraising activities to supplement the revenue coming in from endowment, ticket sales or other sources of earned income.

Just like every other nonprofit in the country.

This is not a failure of its business model… it is the MET’s business model, as approved by the IRS.

But I understand that for many people, the world of classical music is somewhat arcane… perhaps another example will help clear things up.  Let’s take Habitat for Humanity, another nonprofit. Just like the MET, Habitat for Humanity’s earned income does not cover all its expenditures, and it depends on charitable donations and volunteer labor to fulfill its mission of building homes for families in need.  Yes it could bump up its earned revenue—the quickest way would be to sell the homes it builds at market prices, rather than give them away.  Problem solved!  Then it would be able to buy its own supplies, and pay its workers rather than depend on volunteers. But in doing so, it would stop being a mission-based organization, and simply become yet another real estate developer.  Plus, there would no longer be any reason to donate to it, so it would have to completely restructure its budget to compensate for the loss of that revenue stream.

In short, it certainly could reshape itself to rely on earned income… but it would be an altogether different organization.

Let me be clear. Organizations like the MET and Habitat for Humanity are businesses, but they have to be recognized as nonprofit businesses. Nonprofits stand apart in that they are designed to meet a critical social need, or provide an important service to the community. They are driven by a stated mission, and their success or failure is ultimately determined by how effectively they live up to that mission. Yes, there absolutely is a business and financial aspect to doing this, but the business and financial strategies and decisions are always in service of the outcomes, not the profits. Thus nonprofits are fundamentally different from for-profit businesses, both in outlook and financial structure.

Can we please put this talking point to rest?

Hell, can we please put all these talking points to rest?


12 thoughts on “Merry Christmas [sic] from the MET

  1. You should ask why did he hire full time lawyers that are paid $1000hr to constantly argue about our weekly paychecks. We haven’t gone through a season since the last negotiation that they didn’t fight every week to get paid. He hired these lawyers to break us.
    Ask him why did he spend a years budget on one set? The Ring. Made in Canada and had to be returned to Canada to rehearse each installment (4 separate shows). Not to mention that the set was so heavy the stage and side stage had to be beefed up to be able to support it.
    Then he spent a boat load of money to redo the video effects then ended up using the old video instead.

    The list goes on.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bravo …. perfectly communicated!! Every point clear. And let’s just point out that Gelb has not made any effort at all to create some kind of music performance for his company in this very futuristic connected world. Really? Nothing! It’s abominable. And he put all the employees out to dry with no compensation when they could have provided some. Thank you so much for this article. I hope many will read it and understand what is really going on!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just have to say that most stagehands at the Met are averaging about 120000 a year and less. So I don’t know where his 2600000 dollar figure comes from. I guess he owes the stagehands about 120-140000 thousand dollars each to make his 260000 dollar figure more accurate. Gelb also never mentions the stagehands not getting raises for a bunch of years and giving back 3.75% another year and then being thanked by cutting many hours out of our work day. Also doesn’t mention how he’s been cutting back the size of the crews so now each man is doing the work of 2-3 men. He’ll never tell the public about that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Met’s negotiating committee admitted at the beginning of this “negotiation” that they were planning on asking for the 30 percent cuts before the pandemic hit. This has nothing do do with Covid and I applaud your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Which will conveniently come exclusively at the expense of the union workers trying to make the MET a success.”

    Not true.

    You make a lot of good points but don’t forget that the non-union admin staff has been hit hard by this, too. In 2008/9 their pay was cut before any union members’ was. And the lower level staff’s pay stinks compared to what you get paid to fix light bulbs in offices, for example.


    • Hello John and thanks for your comment. I’ve changed the wording around “union” workers, because certainly non-union workers have been hit hard, and I don’t want to start pitting union and non-workers against each other. That is a tactic I’ve seen pushed too many times.


  6. Bravo. Well said. Peter Gelb continues along the same old tired path. The workers are the problem! Well, now that you have locked them out, and have no workers, good luck building and performing your new productions.
    Local One IATSE stagehands work 60-80 hours a week. Often without a meal break for 12-15 hours a day. Often without a day off. Now they do Sunday performances, removing the chance to see their family on the weekend.
    But Peter Gelb fails to recognize their contribution to the cause. Not a great Idea to demean their work. The singers, musicians, directors, stage managers, ALL artistic personnel, AND STAGE CREW put these incredibly complex performances on EVERY evening. Day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year.
    Show some respect Peter Gelb. These crafts are not the drain on your finances, they make your shows possible.


  7. Very well written!

    I hope Mr. Gelb realizes that we all know his purpose is to end Union Labor inside the MET’s walls. He’s not fooling anyone least of all those of us who rely on Union Labor for our livelihoods. My husband can do the work of 10 men in a shorter amount of time and he deserves to be paid for that without fear that the next time Peter has an excuse he will try to cut labor costs in half.


  8. Pingback: Blogging in Exile: Ramping Up for a Performance of Beethoven 9 After Nine Months Without Access to Timpani – Jason Haaheim

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