IATSE To NYC: No Money to Met Opera During Lockout

NEW YORK, NY — “The coalition of I.A.T.S.E. Unions request that the New York City Council not provide funding to the Metropolitan Opera, including capital grants, in the City budget while it remains engaged in its agenda of Union busting. We believe that if the City withholds public funds from the Met, you will be sending a clear message that policymakers expect nothing short of a good faith negotiation between the Met and it’s Unions,” said James J. Claffey, Jr., President of Local One, testifying at New York City’s preliminary budget hearing on Cultural Affairs, on behalf of the IATSE Metropolitan Opera Coalition.

Read his complete testimony:

Chairman Van Bramer, and distinguished members of the City Council, I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of you before. I’m James J. Claffey, Jr., President of Local One, and International Vice President of the International Alliance Theatrical Stage Employees (I.A.T.S.E.). I am here today to provide testimony on behalf of a coalition of I.A.T.S.E. Unions collectively representing over 15,000 members, of which 500 work at the Metropolitan Opera House. Our members work titles ranging from Scenic, Costume and Lighting Designers, Box Office Treasurers, Wardrobe and Costume Shop Employees, Hair & Makeup Artists, to the 350 stagehands onstage and Carpenter, Paint and Electric Shop Crew members. There can be no productions of Grand Opera at The Metropolitan Opera House without all these Union professionals. However, the Metropolitan Opera House, under the leadership of General Manager Peter Gelb, is now subjecting our members to a Union-busting scheme. For this reason, the IATSE Metropolitan Opera Coalition is asking the New York City Council to refrain from providing funding to the Met Opera in the City budget.

First, you should know that Local One’s membership has been locked out for fourteen weeks by The Met Opera’s management. While Local One is the only Union that has been locked out so far, as a practical matter, our situation creates a de facto lockout for other workers represented by I.A.T.S.E., due to the interconnectivity of our work. In addition, most of the other Unions representing workers at The Met are working under expired contracts or have been asked to reopen collective bargaining agreements early for the purpose of providing massive concessions to the opera company. The purported rationale for the concessions, an overwhelming amount of which are work rule changes, is premised on the impact of COVID-19 on The Met Opera.

In reality The Met Opera’s demands utilize the pandemic as leverage to obtain non-COVID-19 related concessions. Examples of such concessions include a 30% reduction in pay that extends for years with no relationship to the end of the pandemic, and work rule changes that imperil health, safety, and the quality of life for our members who are typically required to work 75 hours a week, with around-the-clock schedules and weekend work. When looking at management’s demand for concessions, it is clear that there is no nexus with COVID-19 and the global pandemic is a mere pretext to bust the Unions and gut the contracts fairly negotiated over many decades.

This is not simply one union president’s view. The Met’s hostility to its labor Unions is part of a nation-wide effort by some cultural affairs institutions to break Unions. This Union-busting moment has been described in the media, including The Washington Post[1] and National Public Radio.

From the Unions’ perspective, we recognize that the Met’s finances are impacted by the pandemic. With the Opera House closed, it is not taking in audience revenue. But our members are also greatly impacted – as a result of the arts and entertainment shut down, workers have lost employer healthcare contributions and have struggled through the unemployment process with the uncertainty of continued federal assistance. It is for this reason, that our Union, and the many other Unions whose members work at the Met are prepared to CONSIDER concessions while the Opera House is shuttered. To this point, we have seen examples where other cultural institutions have worked closely with their Unions to craft mutually agreed upon collective bargaining agreements that fully recognize the harm the pandemic is inflicting upon their institution, while respecting their workers. Local One has bargained to grant relief that recognizes the pandemic’s effects for a period of time with, noting just a few – the David H. Koch Theater, The Shed, City Center, and The Friedman Theater. We are not sticking our heads in the sand. Sadly, this is not the viewpoint of management at The Met Opera. The Met’s demands for draconian reductions in perpetuity are disgraceful.

Let’s look under the hood. Mr. Gelb and management are not demanding massive Union concessions to account for the impact of Covid-19, but rather as compensation for their historical pattern of poor financial decisions. It is important to emphasize that Mr. Gelb has systematically engaged in financially risky, flawed, and failed management which he then seeks to paper over with demands that The Met Opera workforce shoulder the costs of his blunders. Since Mr. Gelb’s arrival in 2006, in every negotiation the Unions have been asked for assistance in his agenda, ranging from no wage increases to actual wage rollbacks, concessions which have been granted. In past negotiations, Mr. Gelb has also sought term and working condition concessions which we have successfully defended. Now he is seeking to gain these same term and condition concessions using the pandemic as a vehicle for leverage. It is intolerable. Enough is enough.

The Met continues to pay its top management six- and sometimes seven-figure salaries while asking working men and women to accept drastic cuts. According to the Metropolitan Opera Association’s Form 990 (Schedule J, Part II) for the period ending July 2019, Mr. Gelb earned a base salary of nearly $1.5 million (not including benefits). The Met claims a need to save on staff costs, leaving labor positions vacant, while at the same time Mr. Gelb continues to hire additional management staff. The Met claims a need to reduce costs and yet spends huge sums of money on scrapping and replacing productions (commissioning too many new productions that cost millions with no realistic expectation of even a break-even financial return).[2] For example, The Met Opera this month announced plans to co-produce with the English National Opera new sets for Wagner’s Ring Cycle that will cost millions of dollars. Meanwhile, sets for the same opera are sitting in an expensive warehouse gathering dust. While management should have prerogatives, the public should not be asked to continually fund mismanagement. This was not the case prior to Mr. Gelb’s tenure.

The consistency of Mr. Gelb’s financial mismanagement has led to his increasing belief that the remedy to the opera company’s problems is to bust The Met Opera’s unions. Instead of negotiating fairly, Mr. Gelb has chosen to lock out Local One and outsource up to a year of set and scenery work. Two productions slated to be produced in the Met’s in-house shop have been subcontracted to Bay Productions in Cardiff Wales and another will be built in a nonunion shop on the west coast. These outsourced projects constitute millions of dollars of income for New York workers. And it gets worse. Past attempts at outsourcing results in the Met Opera bringing the work back to its union workers for correction and adjustment resulting in paying both the contractors and its employees – in other words, paying twice.

While Mr. Gelb insincerely and publicly declares a need for “sacrifice on all sides,” he has chosen the path in which the quality of life of the workers is the sacrifice. The Met’s demands would take away overtime rules, reduce sick day accrual, reduce vacation pay, remove comp time and reduce benefits. These take it or leave it demands impact the livelihood and health and safety of the workers. These items have been gained in mutual exchange bargaining over decades. In effect, Mr. Gelb is demanding to return our agreement to the 1999 terms.

Therefore, as I prefaced, the coalition of I.A.T.S.E. Unions request that the New York City Council not provide funding to the Metropolitan Opera, including capital grants, in the City budget while it remains engaged in its agenda of Union busting. We believe that if the City withholds public funds from the Met, you will be sending a clear message that policymakers expect nothing short of a good faith negotiation between the Met and its Unions. And to be clear, a negotiation in which Peter Gelb presents all nine pages of his proposal as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition does not constitute good faith bargaining and should not be rewarded with public dollars.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear on behalf of the members of the I.A.T.S.E. Union coalition. I am available to answer any questions you may have.

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