Will Audiences Be Returning to the Metropolitan Opera?

The Met Opera’s management has used COVID-19 as leverage to seek long-term wage cuts, locking out backstage workers and outsourcing work overseas.

Now the Met needs its workers to load in sets, but IATSE Local One says without a fair deal, that’s not going to happen. 

The performing arts are coming back. Starting with baby steps this month on Broadway, the pace will pick up with outside performances this summer and gain speed in the fall. But, not at the Metropolitan Opera – unless the Met’s management treats its workers fairly.

The famed opera company, the largest performing arts organization in the United States, employing close to 3,000 people, has announced that it will open on September 27 with the premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut up in my Bones. It is the first opera by a Black composer to be performed at the Met. But workers who install the sets to perform that opera—stagehands, technicians and skilled craftspeople represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE)—are currently locked out by the Met with no end to the lockout in sight.  Sets are scheduled to be delivered later this spring.

In December, the Met locked out workers and has since remained closed.  The opera company’s management has refused to negotiate fairly, insisting on 30 percent, take-it-or-leave-it wage cuts that would remain in effect long after audiences return to their seats.

IATSE Local One President James J. Claffey Jr. explained that a lockout is different than a strike. This situation is not a case of workers withholding their labor. “This is Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manger, and his board, locking the doors, refusing to sincerely come to the bargaining table and cruelly inflicting harm on our members already hurt by the pandemic,” Claffey said. “This is shameful behavior.”

The working people who make up IATSE Local One will not agree to Gelb’s extortion-like, take-it-or-leave-it, non-negotiable demands.

The Metropolitan Opera is the only arts company in America that has locked out its workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to use the health crisis as leverage. “Other performing arts companies are raising funds from patrons and rallying support around helping their workers during this long, unprecedented intermission in the arts,” said IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb.

“The Met is an outlier,” Loeb said. “Gelb has betrayed the stage technicians and craftspeople who are dedicated to the Met—many of whom have worked for the opera company long before Gelb’s tenure.  Gelb has denied the workers an income and worse has outsourced their work overseas at a time when they could use employment since they have been unable to work because of the pandemic.”

The New York Times and The American Prospect have documented that the Met Opera has sent production work for two operas, Rigoletto and Don Carlos that would normally be done by American workers to a company in Wales. Sets for Fire Shut up in my Bones have been sent to a non-union production operation on the west coast. The Met Opera also has outsourced the work of musicians for online performances.

IATSE has reached out to donors, including the Ford Foundation, and elected leaders to ask them to withhold support for the Met Opera until negotiations resume. The lockout and the Met’s outsourcing of work overseas during turbulent economic times is likely to become an issue in the New York City mayor’s race.

“We’ve devoted our work lives to this institution. We want to work. We’re willing to tighten our belts and take pay cuts during this terrible period for the arts, but we won’t agree to Gelb’s overreach,” Claffey said. “Until management gets its act together, there won’t be sets entering the opera house and there will be no opera this season.”

IATSE has 800 members at the Met Opera who work as stagehands, ticket sellers, costumers, lighting designers and technicians, set designers, make-up artists and broadcast technicians, among other positions. Roughly 300 are affiliated with IATSE Local One.

This is not the first time Gelb has tried to make up for a history of overspending, mismanagement and his own lavish lifestyle by placing unreasonable demands on his workforce. He threatened to lock out Met workers in 2014.

Gelb was paid over $2.1 million in combined pay and benefits for running the nonprofit, according to the Metropolitan Opera’s latest 990 tax filing.  He is sitting out the pandemic in a luxury midtown apartment and while he claims not to be taking compensation currently, his pay will likely be made up later through deferred compensation or bonuses.

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