Criticism on Fridays: How AGMA Failed Its Artists

And Not Only the Soloists

By Polina Lyapustina

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

This week, AGMA announced that a four-year agreement was approved by union leadership after a tentative agreement (starting on May 11, 2021) and following a shop vote of all the work groups of AGMA Artists at the Met. Work groups include choristers, soloists, dancers, actors, stage directors, and stage managers.

The voting took place at the end of the last week, shortly after a meeting of AGMA members on June 3, during which the soloists asked to postpone the voting and prepared a list of questions with the aim of improving the agreement reached with the Met. Soloists also questioned the voting process, that after AGMA failed to protect the soloists’ rights, began to raise doubts.

The soloists were particularly interested in knowing the share of their votes in the voting groups and whether one group’s NO would stop the bargain (since there was no hope that others would stay for their interests). They also questioned why other work groups were represented better during the initial negotiations, and what the reaction of representatives was to such results.

Singers also publically raised the question of how these changes would affect their future contracts after 2024 since most of them would be negotiated in the first half of 2024. Knowing the usual practice of getting work for soloists, those changes affected the soloist’s contracts not only for three but eight-10 years in advance.

The last but certainly not least important issue the soloists highlighted was questioning the effectiveness and general usefulness of AGMA for this group of artists, as well as the fairness of their rates. 

“If AGMA technically negotiates nothing beyond our minimum, why don’t we pay 2% working dues on those minimums only?”

And though those and many other rightful and logical questions gave some hope for changes, AGMA instantly moved forward with voting the very next day with a very late notice to vote. The process was not ordinary either. About 400 people voted by email confidentially and were not even required to include their member IDs. There was also a possibility that the Board of Governors could override the overall member vote. 

When AGMA showed such an approach again — this time, preparing the “democratic” part of ratification — they clearly stated that the general working process set for this union was way more important than the rights and interests of its members. So it was not a surprise to see them announcing the “positive” results of the voting on Tuesday.

The AGMA Met shop voted in favor of the agreement with 334 affirmative votes and only 124 people voted against it. Of course, 113 of 124 “no’s” are soloists, and only 11 of those “no’s” were represented by other work groups. This clearly indicates how the major players of the industry smartly use the fragmentation of workers to reach their goals at the expense of one or the other groups in different periods. And I wonder if the chorus, dancers, directors, and others understand how their silence will affect their future when the Met or any other major company will decide to introduce new cuts, confidently using this precedent with the soloists (and the experience of making big money at their expense). They should understand that the corporations (which the major opera companies are spiritually, if not technically, turning into now) always want more. It’s just a matter of time when they will choose another target. And unions that are supposed to unite and educate workers in this regard failed in this mission. 

Another sad or rather questionable result is the number of soloists who voted for the ratification — 89 (with 113 against). This fact not only leaves confusion and doubt in the voting process and the ability of people to vote consciously in such circumstances. It also gives AGMA and the Met the opportunity to call their agreement fair and truly accepted by all the groups (even though the majority of the soloists voted strongly against it).

In its letter to the AGMA members, the union uses all the same carrot and stick again, calling this agreement “a balancing act, a give and take.”

“Considering what the Met was originally publicly seeking in concessions, which was around 30%, this comprehensive agreement is the best resolution for all our members,” said Len Egert, National Executive Director of AGMA, and the co-lead negotiator of the Met/AGMA contract. “It was a balancing act, a give and take, but we continued to push the interests and needs of our Artists to the forefront of every conversation. We ensured that AGMA members who make their livelihood at the Met can continue to do so and that the Met as an institution can continue to attract and retain the best Artists in the world.”

The “give” part for all groups is clear, meanwhile the “take” still mostly consists of promises and pledges of AGMA to protect its members, a promise that – as we have come to understand only once they revealed the agreement – the organization was breaking every day of negotiations.

I do believe AGMA when it says that it “ensured […] that the Met as an institution can continue to attract and retain the best Artists in the world.” Aren’t the interests of those very best Artists meant to be their main goal? Are we now entering the period of open and shameless consumption of the artists and their talents by companies?

Just one month has passed since AGMA and the Met agreed on the new conditions. Conditions that were revealed only 20 days ago. But these 20 days of public discussions clearly showed all the disconcerting patterns of the industry — greed, priority of economic interests, corruption, fragmentation, and deafness to each other’s needs, fear of speaking out — developed and used by companies against the artists and the art form. 

Today, it’s known and proven that AGMA, once founded by soloists, no longer represents their best interests. Now we wait and see how other unions manage the same barriers and what the ultimate outcome of their work will be.