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.