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Met Union's Bold Gesture in Contract Talks

May 6, 2014

It's doubtful that anything will come of it, but the Metropolitan Opera unions's move to include the press (and thus the public) in contract talks is, at the very least, "interesting." As reported by Jennifer Maloney in The Wall Street Journal:

The Metropolitan Opera is scheduled to kick off high-stakes negotiations on Monday with an unusually public standoff: Despite management's objections, the singers' union has invited members of the media.

As a result, the Met has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board even before across-the-table talks begin.

"The Met wants to work with ... unions in an atmosphere that encourages open and transparent dialogue, which is critical to a productive negotiation," a Met spokesman said. "Obviously, this cannot be achieved by having the press at the bargaining table."

Union leader Alan Gordon, who represents singers, dancers and stage managers, said he is pushing for more transparency as the Met for the first time in decades seeks to cut labor costs. The Met is seeking to cut pay for members of the three biggest unions by more than 16%. Union leaders are preparing for a potential lockout.

"This is supported by public money," Mr. Gordon said. "If the Met's going to go dark, people should know what's going on."

The Met, faced with declining ticket sales, an insufficient endowment and growing expenses, is hoping for a financial reset. Its operating budget grew to $327 million last year from $209 million in 2006, when general manager Peter Gelb took the helm.

In a memo to company members on Saturday, Mr. Gelb said the Met's board has agreed to rebuild the opera's depleted endowment on the condition that he achieve labor-cost savings.

"With a new business model in place, adjusted to today's reality of a smaller audience for opera, we will be able to guarantee the jobs, health care, and pensions of our hard working and talented employees," he wrote. "Without this change, the Met will not be able to survive."

The Met's three largest unions are seeking an oversight role to rein in what they see as wasteful spending by Mr. Gelb — not on labor, but on the scale and number of new productions.

The Met has 16 labor unions, all with contracts expiring in July. Labor accounts for two-thirds of the company's operating budget.

The Met is one of the world's premier opera companies. Its 80 full-time chorus members, whose workdays sometimes stretch from 10 a.m. until midnight, earn $200,000 a year on average, according to the Met. Those earnings include revenue-sharing for high-definition broadcasts, Mr. Gordon said.

In contrast to the two other major unions, the American Guild of Musical Artists has adopted a publicly antagonistic approach. Mr. Gordon has written, and shared with reporters, fiery emails to Mr. Gelb.

"He's hurting people," Mr. Gordon said of Mr. Gelb. "There's no reason to be nice about it."

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].