Editorial: Predictions — The Fight Between Local 802 and the Met Spreads Further Than the Orchestra Pit

A War of Two Titan Brands in Which Good Intentions & Striving for Equality Seem to Be the Only Thing That Could Help Peter Gelb (But Not Really)

By Polina Lyapustina

For over a month, there have been no big headlines about the Metropolitan Opera in news. Sure, there are cast changes and the likes, but that’s kind of business as usual per the Met.  And it creates a sense of progress toward the opening of the new season. 

But this apparent progress or achievement, which during the summer was routinely questioned by Peter Gelb to convince another union to sign an agreement, is still far from the ultimate victory.

Before we start to praise or condemn the strategy of Local 802, who, on behalf of the orchestra, accepted returning to the bargaining table in March and has yet to announce a deal, we should observe the big picture of the Met entering the new season, and how it will affect Gelb’s strategy. 

We can confidently state a complete loss of trust and decreasing loyalty among workers, with constant talks and hopes for the removal of the Gelb behind the scenes. There were several devastated soloists as a result of the immediate date changes caused by falsely prolonged negotiations with Local One, which only adds to the instability. I would venture to guess that the lesson was learned, and Gelb won’t take the risk delaying negotiations with the orchestra. 

And though Metropolitan Opera will soon receive a long-expected $10 million boost from the federal government, the long-term finances of the company don’t look great, especially when you consider that Gelb’s and the board’s salaries were kept intact (Gelb saw a slight decrease from $1.49 million in 2019 to $1.46 million in 2020) as was the growing — according to the increased assignments — wage of Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who also, per tax releases from 2020, saw a nice bump in his pay while the orchestra was furloughed without it). 

But the Met’s management is confident everything will improve once the company starts working again. And they aren’t taking any risks — vaccinations are mandatory for both workers and the audience (at least the company got this right in what has undoubtedly been a year of one PR fiasco after another).

And everything seems to be signed and insured, except for…

The Orchestra

After AGMA’s poor negotiation many of us, including me, thought that the other unions would follow suit in catering to the company at the expense of employees. It wasn’t the 30 percent cuts Gelb was clamoring for, but it was still an unfair and unclear solution, sowing discord among workers. And while it was a big win for Gelb, it came at a cost— workers learned not to trust their union blindly and demanded to stand for their interests first before signing anything.

And the quiet and even too unhurried success of IATSE Local One proved that this approach works the best. So instead of an unequal and messy system for calculating the salary reductions, they reached a deal ratified by almost 100 percent of the union’s workers.

At this moment, the center of attention was moved to the orchestra completely, though no one could say the attention ever left these musicians. Peter Gelb stressed once again — the future of the Met Opera season lies on the orchestra’s shoulders. But could this work again?

With the devoted musicians of the orchestra, well, maybe. But not after this year and not with this union. 

Local 802 President Adam Krauthamer is not a person you’d like to have a cup of coffee with. In the comments he made to The NY Times article, the reader with the nickname Arrest Him Now noted: 

Good luck negotiating with 802. Adam Krauthamer (emphasis on hammer) has the people skills of a bull in a china shop. Arrogant and full of himself, to say the least. And I say this as a long time active and fully vested 802 member. For example, he’s already allowed one union gig that I did for years to go non-union because of his difficult personality, excessive demands and leaning on arcane, antiquated labor rules that no longer apply to the 21st century musical workplace environment. I will keep hope alive, but with the current 802 administration, I predict rough going.

I cannot agree more, but with a bitter smile, I should notice that in the current situation, the man so inconsistent with the realities and morality of the 21st century may be the right weapon to fight the even more outdated management of the Met. 

The orchestra members, who are (as all the other workers) the heart and soul of the Met, certainly want to come back to their pit, and yet, unlike most Met employees, they learned a lot during this pandemic. They learned to communicate, to get good support, and to earn their own money. And that’s Gelb’s biggest problem — it’s now clear for everyone, the Met needs its orchestra more than the musicians need the Met. 

And merciless Adam Krauthamer knows that too. The closer we get to the start of the season, the weaker Gelb’s position becomes. The delay of the orchestra rehearsals is his nightmare and his responsibility. And honestly, I see no aces up his sleeves. So the pay cuts for the orchestra will, I expect, to be the smallest. Moreover, if Local 802 keeps to its “we don’t care much about others” policy, they might end up with no cuts at all. 

But I still believe, that the orchestra musicians, who managed to remain active during most of the pandemic and got the largest donations during that period, are more empathetic than their representatives and might not want to put a further burden on their fellow Met colleagues. And ironically, the goodwill of the very people it’s undermined for over a year, might be the big hope for this administration. Otherwise, the orchestra has no reason to accept anything at all. 

An attempt to replace the orchestra or not allow them into a pit at all would ruin the public image of the Gelb administration and the 2021-22 season. And this season is an “all or nothing” game for the Metropolitan Opera in the post-pandemic world. So honestly, not the fate of the season lies in the orchestra pit, but the fate of the Met. And if for one minute, we believe in the fair rules of this game, there’s no way Local 802 accepts any serious cuts for the orchestra. They can even have some bonuses if they push. 

But do we believe in fair rules at the Met?

The Problems That Remain

During my discussions of this topic since the AGMA deal was accepted, I have constantly found myself bumping across one very particular opinion. People would prefer a general house cleaning on both sides — of the Met’s administration and Unions themselves. Change the system altogether for a new, post-pandemic world.

Though the unions are supposed to support and help, the system shows that it takes any freedom from the workers and forces them into situations that don’t necessarily benefit them. See AGMA and its soloists. The bigger the union, the greater its power and the smaller the workers and their ability to shape any change becomes.

And before you even consider the idea of smaller, independent unions, did you know that there are another 20 smaller unions that represent workers at the Met, and up to 15 of them, according to The NY Times, are still negotiating their contracts? How effective they can be against Gelb lawyers? And does it make them worse unions?

How outdated is that? The strongest get the best? Stone age, right? And yet, no matter how hard we try to promote kindness, morality, diversity, whatsoever… in any critical moment, raw power always wins.

Of course, it’s easy to forget that ultimately, we give that power. To unions or to administrations. To superiority or to diversity and equality. 

But none of this works if we don’t consciously strive for that. As long as AGMA members ignore the disadvantage of soloists, and every union tries to reach its own goals to look better and demand more, we make it easier for the Met administration to defeat each union (big or small) separately.

And sure, a victory of one beast of the industry over another — Adam Krauthamer over the Met on behalf of the orchestra will certainly be soothing and even inspiring. But only until we ask ourselves if we want people to win this way? Corrupting, offending, shouting, improving nothing, making money, forgetting others? Because we’ve seen this battle play out over and over again. Collective bargaining is never easy, but it seems that the Met and unions led by people like Krauthamer have a knack for turning every negotiation into some gladiatorial media battle. Battles that create tension, hurt, unnecessary stress, bitterness that will only build up in anticipation of the next battle in this never-ending war. And for what? Significant improvements to working conditions? Better wages? None of the above. And certainly not better art.

And it’s not going to change. Not as things continue to stand.

When AGMA signed the infamous agreement, I got scared that it would spread. Turns out, the situation was even worse — nothing could spread, because the unions themselves had no connections or interest in one another.

“We are the Met” is a pretty popular refrain from all the unions. But what seems more accurate is that every union is a different Met.

This kind of disunity only favors one kind of person in the long run: Gelb. And people like Krauthamer.