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Monday, July 28, 2014

50 Shades of Negotiations

The Met (and its unions) are heading for a showdown.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Image from © 2014
In the middle of news stories about the current state of negotiations between the Metropolitan Opera and its fifteen unions (whose contracts all expire at midnight on Thursday). Apropos of nothing, last week also saw the release of the trailer for the movie version of E.L. James' kinky romance novel 50 Shades of Grey.

Questionable as literature but highly popular with readers, 50 Shades  is the story of a recent college graduate who falls under the spell of a well-dressed sociopath and embarks on a journey into her "inner Goddess" through a long process of spankings, bondage, and being tickled with feather dusters. These novels also have a peripheral connection to the world of classical music, given the title character Christian Grey's predilection for engaging in such activities while listening to the music of Leo Delibes and Johann Sebastian Bach.

In an interview published Thursday by the Associated Press, Met general manager Peter Gelb appeared to be interested in helping the orchestra find that self-same deity. He said: "We need to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make [the union employees] take this seriously," he said. “The short-term pain is something we’d have to live with in order to provide long-term survival."

The promise of short-term pain is the latest element in the current round of negotiations between the Met and its unions, who are facing steep cuts (16% to 30% depending on which side's story you listen to) in their benefits and overtime pay. Management claims that these cuts are necessary to give the Met donors a chance to shore up the company's dwindling endowment. However these proposed cutbacks could  destroy the esprit de corps of the company's  unionized workers. Parties that would be affected include the stagehands, the orchestra and the singers and Met chorus, who enjoy an international reputation of excellence.

Mr. Gelb's negotiation "playbook" (steep cuts proposed, threats of lockout, possibly followed by eventual lockout and partial scrapping of season) are all too familiar to the classical music world, having been seen in recent years at the (now-defunct) New York City Opera, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra, who lost a Carnegie Hall residency and (temporarily) music director Osmo Vänskä due to the obstinacy of management. All those stories have been covered on Superconductor.

For their part, the musicians of Local 802 (which submitted a lengthy document last week detailing the plummeting box office numbers of Mr. Gelb's new production, particularly the costly and unwieldly Robert Lepage staging of Wagner's Ring) may not be willing to embrace these cuts. (The Met submitted a rebuttal of that document also, which you can read here.) Both sides also sat down to the negotiating table for the first time since February of this year.

Also digging in their heels is AGMA, whose union representative Alan S. Gordon has been trying to bring the media to cover events at their negotiating table, a tactic that has led to injunctions being filed and much acrimony between the union and the Met management.

Mr. Gordon says that the union is willing to make concessions but sees problems with the current management. "Our people would be happy to make concessions to help the Met survive. But not to help Gelb survive," Mr. 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."

In another quote from the AP article, Mr. Gelb said: "Once the dust settles, the musicians “don’t have to love me to play well."

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