The Clock is Ticking: Will Opera Return to the Met This Fall?

NEW YORK – After seven months of silence, with no formal or informal talks and an ongoing lockout that has denied work to the Met Opera’s stagehands and skilled craftspeople, negotiators for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local One and the Metropolitan Opera resumed this week. Peter Gelb, the Met Opera’s general manger has told the union that he desperately needs stagehands and shop crews to return to work starting June 14 in order for the famed opera company to meet its production schedule for the 2021-2022 opera season. The union has said that its members will not perform any work without a contract.

“We have explained to the Met Opera that a lockout is not a light switch that you can turn on and turn off,” said IATSE Local One President James J. Claffey Jr.  “The Met would like 250 or more of our members to return to work next week to ready the opera house and move sets.

However, the Met’s take-it-or-leave-it demands at the bargaining table last year, the heartless lockout of workers during a pandemic, and their outsourcing of work overseas at a time when there was little work to begin with, has created a complete lack of trust.”

Negotiators for IATSE Local One and the Met Opera have agreed to a schedule of intensive in-person negotiations this week. “Local One’s bargaining team is committed to bargaining day and night until an agreement is reached, but until there is a contractual agreement, the stage and shop crew members will not return to the Metropolitan Opera House,” said Claffey.

The Metropolitan Opera’s management has used COVID-19 as leverage to seek long-term 30 percent, take-it-or-leave-it wage cuts that would remain in effect long after audiences return to their seats. In December, the Met locked out 350 stagehands and others represented by IATSE Local One. The Met Opera, with roughly 3,000 workers, is the largest performing arts organization in the United States.  It is the only arts company in America that has locked out its workers.

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 in New York to a company in Wales. Sets for the season premier, Fire Shut up in my Bones, scheduled for September 27, 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.

Since March, the union has repeatedly stated we would not tolerate employers attempting to exploit the pandemic in order to erode the standards we worked so hard to establish in the first place. On the matter, IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb said, “It’s outrageous for the Met to lockout its stagehands during the pandemic, and to leverage them for conditions the company was unable to get in normal times. It’s opportunistic, despicable, and demonstrates a real lack of compassion for so many in these already trying times.”

While it is disappointing Met bosses have chosen to lock out workers during a pandemic, it is not surprising. This is just one of several high-profile disputes with the Met since Peter Gelb took over as the General Manager. In 2019, Met Opera Hair And Make Up artists were forced to vote to authorize a strike after Met Management refused to compromise on pay issues for months, though a deal was reached before any workers actually walked off the job. And in July 2014, Gelb threatened to lockout union workers after pointing the blame at the Met’s unionized workforce for overrun costs, despite him ignoring his own mismanagement and rampant cost overruns unrelated to labor costs.

The Met’s workers are the Met; there is no Met without a workforce that can support themselves and their families. The costs of the current crisis should not and cannot be shifted so labor must carry the entire burden. In this pandemic, we must truly be in this together to survive, and it is shameful that Peter Gelb and the Met’s management don’t seem to agree.

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