Criticism on Fridays: Can We Already MET?

Labor Unions Also Offer Up Major Obstacle to Making Progress for Workers

By Polina Lyapustina

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most sensitive topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

The last few weeks were noisy on the battlefield between Gelb and the unions representing the rights of the Met Opera workers:

Peter Gelb continued unveiling future plans for Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming seasons as he prepares the latest in his “Met Stars Live in Concert” series — without a single mention of the Met’s missing employees.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin received the Opus Prize for Artistic Director of the Year. While his artistic merits are undeniable, there was something off about giving this award specifically to him THIS year given the year-long situation with the orchestra. 

None of the Met Opera Board members have uttered a single word about the situation (ever). The members run the show behind the curtains, making the major decisions across the board. They affect the process as much as or even more so than Gelb, but as often happens with the top one percent, they take none of the responsibility for anything. Their silence also suggests (or confirms) the idea that they have little to no interest in the concerns or needs of people who shape and create the thing they own – the very People they NEED for that opera house they run to be more than an empty building.

Local 802 (which represents the Met Orchestra) announced a virtual membership meeting featuring Senator Chuck Schumer. This sounds big, but one wonders what good it would do for the musicians to receive another portion of public sympathy and well-trained political non-commitment since the Senator’s status can’t make any major promises, offer solutions, or make changes for anyone in the short run. It’s just not how the political system works.

IATSE launched an advertising campaign “Without People the Opera is Nothing.” The alliance which represents roughly 800 artistic and technical workers at the Metropolitan Opera, warns that “unless the Met’s management returns to the bargaining table and treats workers fairly, there will be no opera in 2021.” This announcement basically commited to an all-or-nothing approach that could continue to leave the world without the Met, but more importantly, 800 people without jobs for another year. 

AGMA (fighting for the rights of the Met Chorus, Ballet, Supers & Staff Performers) continued its third week of negotiations with Gelb. Their analysis of the Met’s new agreement indicated many “unacceptable proposals that would make working at the Met both untenable financially and unsafe.” So far, AGMA made progress on:

• Guaranteed minimum number of stage managers;
• Expanded Long Term Disability Coverage for soloists;
• Artists’ use of media clips for promotional and educational purposes;
• Increased sick leave for Staff Performers.

As you can see, behind the numerous press releases, there were few to no visibly brave heroes to turn the tide of the battle. But maybe the reason is more down-to-earth? Maybe there’s no substantial battle, though we are constantly being asked to see the victims, whose destinies are decided at the negotiating table.

The history of the United States is, in many ways, the history of not always fair and efficient negotiations and debates about every law, every right and freedom, but especially about every contract where money is involved. 

Labor Unions began forming in the mid-19th century in response to the Industrial Revolution’s social impact. Private sector unions today are regulated by the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935. This quasi 80-year-old law is where the understanding of what the labor union is and how it operates comes from.

The implications here are, of course, that this foundation is pretty outdated and suggests that every union and every representative of the union can play their own game following those old basic rules. And by those rules, once the union has won the support of a majority of the bargaining unit and is certified in a workplace, it has the sole authority to negotiate the conditions of employment for all the members. 

Today, we see Peter Gelb, armed and protected by an army of his famous lawyers, literally surrounded by numerous Unions — Local 802, AGMA, Local 1, Local 764, Local 751, Local 798, Local 794, and USA829 (among several others). I believe, that the list of the lawyers can be even longer. But in this situation, how can you promise any humanistic approach to negotiations? And what are they negotiating? Papers? Signs? Numbers?

And while some people, like AGMA, really do a great though unpopular and frustrating job, negotiating with such serious opponents, what have the others done? They press and push the opponents without listening, confident that, somehow, hurling invectives out in the open will somehow lead to conciliation. They avoid providing proper and transparent explanations to shape public opinion and prefer public anger, which is so easy to manipulate.

Was this supposed to be like that? Is attacking more productive than asking and answering questions? Do lawyers, unions, and committees really give the workers and public a clear understanding and fair solutions? 

When I discussed the insanity of the situation with my editor, I suddenly noted, that nobody knows the whole situation, even the parties involved… Therefore, my conclusion was that there’s no such thing as a whole situation here.

When the Met Orchestra, Artistic and Technical workers chose to decline Gelb’s ruthless proposal, with deep respect, I supported them. But then I started wondering about how they were now conducting their new concert activities, or work in other venues under the same Unions, who are failing to negotiate anything… How is that going to bring them their jobs back at the Met? Will it create any basis for future progress in the field of workers’ rights? I’m not sure.

If you now scroll to the top of this article and read it again, you’ll see that the only organization that has made any real progress is AGMA. And as you’ll see, I’ve listed some tangible specifics on their progress. AGMA broke a common pattern of loud resistance, choosing a knowingly losing game (in the eyes of other unions) with open rules and a human face. I do respect them a lot and hope their fight will win something for the Met employees. And this distinctive approach could be used for the future of the musicians, for which we need particular proposals and agreements. 

(Of course, one cannot ignore that despite AGMA’s progress in this particular arena, the organization is not without its major faults, as exposed over the last year. So even the “heroes” of this story, have some ethical questions looming over them.)

Ultimately, what is happening at the Met has been mentally damaging and must be prevented from happening again. And as I’ve noted before and throughout this piece, the Met management AND the unions bear the responsibility for this fiasco. I don’t mean to suggest that unions have no place in the modern world or that we no longer need them. What we need are Unions that will protect and support the workers, instead of resorting to sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This is not the last time that unions will need to sit down with Met management (or any opera company in the U.S. for that matter) regarding new labor agreements. It’s also not the first time. And yet, over the years, we have seen increasingly open hostility between opposing parties airing their grievances in the press. And for what? If history is anything to go by, an agreement WILL be reached. They always do. We know the inevitability of that because BOTH parties NEED to sort something out. It is inevitable. It will be sorted out.

But what about the laborers caught in the middle of this war for public opinion? What kind of emotional ride are they being taken on by the fight in which they are, in most cases, observers. That’s what I mean when I say unions need to protect and support their workers. Yes, fight for their financial rights, their working conditions, and other contractual benefits. Of course, you can’t trust the companies (and definitely not the board) to look out for the workers’ best interests. But the unions should also consider the workers’ mental wellness now and into the future when considering what kinds of grandstanding tactics they’re going to employ in the next round of negotiations. Instead of pushing the workers into the frontlines of war to be used as target practice that can be pointed to when things go south, keep them out of the line of fire. 

Other essays and columns by Polina Lyapustina on the Met vs Unions topic include: