Metropolitan Opera Lockout Looms as Management, Unions Fight Over Cost-Cutting Proposals

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The Metropolitan Opera house

UPDATED: Contracts for 15 unions are set to expire at midnight, with management threatening to bar employees from the performing-arts facility for the first time in more than three decades.

Update: Contract talks have been extended three days. The original post follows.

The Metropolitan Opera house could go silent on Friday, if new contracts for its union employees aren’t reached before they expire at midnight.

The Met has threatened to lock out its employees if no new deals are reached, leaving workers without pay or benefits and endangering the upcoming opera season. Management wants to cut the pay and benefits of its workers, claiming costs have become unsustainable and concessions are necessary to stem financial problems (last year, the company reported a $2.8 million deficit, according to the Associated Press), but the unions say the money problems are due to general manager Peter Gelb's bad management and could be addressed by staging fewer and less lavish new productions, the AP reports. Negotiations have been contentious and unproductive.

However, there was a glimmer of hope for a deal on Thursday as the unions representing the Met’s chorus and orchestra agreed to have a federal mediator come in to help with negotiations, The New York Times reported.

The lawyer for one union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the Met’s chorus, stage directors, soloists and others, told members of the negotiating committee to remain focused on securing members’ pay and benefits.

“Stay focused: We have a single focus on going to work Friday morning, and getting paid our pay and benefits — period, end of sentence, end of paragraph, end of story,” the attorney, Bruce Simon, told them, according to the Times. “That’s our focus.”

Gelb added that he hoped the mediator would lead to productive discussions.

“My hope is that with a mediator in place, we’ll be able to have meaningful discussions about reaching a compromise,” he told the Times. “If there is a willingness to compromise, and there certainly is on the part of the Met, a deal can be made quite quickly.”

The union representing stagehands, however, Local 1 of the IATSE, is continuing to negotiate with management without a mediator, the Times noted.

Management at the opera house is complaining that its finances are fragile amid weak ticket sales, and that a delayed season could further hurt that revenue stream. Opening night is currently set for Sept. 22 but some may be wary of buying tickets to operas with the season in doubt. Past labor disputes have also led to a drop in subscribers, the Times reported.

As for the workers, it could be hard for them to do without paychecks for an extended period of time, particularly given the high cost of living in New York and the high cost of health care. In the event of a lockout, unionized workers will lose their health insurance, the Met said in a memo last week, according to the Times.

Some are preparing for a long lockout, with the musical artists’ guild’s executive director Alan Gordon telling singers earlier this week, according to the Times, “It is certain that the Met will be dark for at least the remainder of 2014, probably longer.”

Gelb insists that a lockout is necessary for leverage if no deal is reached.

"We need to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make them take this seriously," Gelb told the AP. "The short-term pain is something we'd have to live with in order to provide long-term survival."

IATSE negotiatior Joe Hartnett, meanwhile, told the AP: "We are willing to tighten our belts if Peter Gelb is willing to cut up his credit cards. It's more than just our labor costs that's the problem."

Gordon also told the AP that a lockout would damage relations between management and Met employees.

"Our people would be happy to make concessions to help the Met survive. But not to help Gelb survive," Gordon said, "He doesn't understand how this will poison relations in the future. Our members won't respect him, they won't talk to him, they'll spit at the mention of his name."

Gelb told the AP he’s not concerned about “lingering bitterness.”

"The people who work here are incredibly professional," he said. "I admire them greatly and we had great mutual respect for each other, up until I asked them for a pay cut.

"Once the dust settles, [the musicians] don't have to love me to play well."

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