When the coronavirus epidemic brought performances to a screeching halt across the United States, many of the country’s leading orchestras, dance companies and opera houses temporarily cut their workers’ wages and some stopped paying them.
Now, hopes that vaccines will restore performance next fall are tempered by fears that hibernating box offices will take years to rebound, and many battered institutions are looking to their unions to negotiate cuts. longer term than they deem necessary to survive.
The crisis poses a major challenge to performing arts unions, which over the past decades have been among the most powerful in the country. While musicians from some major ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, have accepted steep cuts that would have been unthinkable under normal circumstances, others are resisting. Some unions fear that the concessions sought will last longer than the pandemic and restore the balance of power between management and workers.
“Historically, collective agreements in the performing arts have evolved into more money and better terms,” said Thomas W. Morris, who has conducted major orchestras in the United States for more than three decades. “And all of a sudden, that’s not an option. It‘s a fundamental change in the model. “
Nowhere is the tension between unions and management more intense than at the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts organization in the country. Its artists and other workers, many of whom have been on unpaid leave since April, are resisting management’s offer to resume receiving reduced wages of up to $ 1,500 per week in exchange for long-term pay cuts and rule changes. of work. After failing to come to an agreement with its technicians, the company locked them out last week, shortly before others returned to work to start building sets for next season.
But musicians in a growing number of orchestras are accepting long-term cuts, recognizing that it would take years for audiences and philanthropy to bounce back from this long period of dark concert halls and theaters.
The New York Philharmonic last week announced a new contract that will cut musicians’ base salaries by 25% through mid-2023, and let players earn less than before the pandemic when it expires in 2024. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the richest ensembles in the country, accepted a new three-year contract slashing wages by 37% on average in the first year, gradually increasing in subsequent years, but only fully recovering if the orchestra meets at least one of the three financial benchmarks. The San Francisco Opera has agreed to a new deal that cuts the orchestra’s salary in half this season, but later catches up.
Unions play a major role behind the scenes of many arts organizations. The contracts they negotiate not only fix compensation, but also help establish a wide range of working conditions, from the number of permanent members an orchestra should have to the number of stagehands needed behind the scenes for each performance, and so on. by the fact that Sunday performances require additional remuneration. It is not uncommon to see large orchestras abruptly ending rehearsals in the middle of a sentence – even when a famous maestro is conducting – when the digital rehearsal clock indicates they are about to work overtime. .
Workers and performers say many of these rules have improved health and safety and increased the quality of performances; management often got angry at the expense.
Many nonprofit arts organizations, including the Met, faced real financial challenges even before the pandemic hit. Now, they say, they are fighting for their survival, firing or firing administrative staff and seeking relief from unions.
“The unions are very reluctant to make concessions; it goes against everything union strategy has been telling them for over 100 years, ”said Susan J. Schurman, professor of labor and labor relations studies at Rutgers University. “But they clearly understand that this is an unprecedented situation.”
But in some institutions, notably the Met and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, workers accuse management of trying to take advantage of the crisis to push for their long-standing union contracts to be changed.
Peter Gelb, the chief executive of the Met, wants to cut workers’ wages by 30% and only restore half of those cuts when box office revenues recover. He hopes to achieve most of the cuts by changing the work rules. In a letter last month to the union representing the 300 or so technicians at the Met, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees, he wrote that “the health crisis has exacerbated the Met’s previous financial fragility, threatening our very existence. He also wrote that the average full-time machinist cost the Met $ 260,000 last year, including perks.
“For the Met to get back on its feet, we’re all going to have to make financial concessions and sacrifices,” Gelb told employees during a video call last month.
There are 15 unions at the Met, and while executives from several of the biggest have said they are ready to agree to some cuts, they are pushing back changes that would survive the pandemic and redefining the working rules they’ve signed up for. long beaten. – especially after so many workers, including the orchestra, choir and legions of backstage workers, endured many months without pay. The Met Orchestra, which is represented by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, said in a statement that management “was exploiting this temporary situation to permanently empty the contracts of the same workers who create the shows on their world stage. “.
Leonard Egert, national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents choir members, soloists, dancers, stage managers and others at the Met, said the unions recognize the harsh reality and are ready to make changes. compromise. “It‘s just that no one wants to sell the future,” he says.
In Washington, the Kennedy Center machinists are waging a similar battle. David McIntyre, president of the alliance’s Local 22, said he had been in controversial negotiations with the Kennedy Center for months over their demand for a 25% pay cut, which members of the union find it hard to bear after many of them have left. without pay since March.
Management is also asking for concessions such as the elimination of time-and-a-half pay on Sundays, he said, a change that would be permanent rather than limited to the pandemic. Labor workers are particularly outraged because the Kennedy Center received $ 25 million from the federal stimulus bill passed in March.
“They’re just trying to get us concessions by taking advantage of a pandemic when neither of us are working,” McIntyre said.
Kennedy Center spokeswoman Eileen Andrews said several of the unions he works with with already agreed pay cuts, including musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra, and the resumption of the pandemic must be accomplished thanks to “shared sacrifices. “
Organizations have lost tens of millions of dollars in ticket revenue, and the prospects for the philanthropy they rely on for their survival remain uncertain. As union negotiations unfold in video call grids rather than the typical stifling board tables, both sides are acknowledging financial fragility.
In some ways, the pandemic has changed the negotiating landscape. Unions, which normally carry enormous weight because strikes stop performance, have less at the moment, when there is no performance to stop. The leverage of management has also changed. While the Met’s threat to lock out its machinists unless they take cuts was less threatening at a time when most employees were not working anyway, its offer to start paying workers who went without. paycheck since April in exchange for long-term agreements. can be hard to resist.
In some institutions, memories of the destructiveness of recent labor disputes have helped foster cooperation during this crisis. At the Minnesota Orchestra, where a bitter lockout kept the concert hall dark for 16 months from 2012, the management and musicians agreed to a 25% pay cut until August.
And the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which experienced its own hard-fought labor dispute last year, came to an agreement on a five-year contract this summer, drastically slashing players’ wages at the start before increasing it. gradually again.
The last time a national crisis of this magnitude hit every performing arts organization in the country was during the Great Recession, when organizations sought cuts to offset the decline in philanthropy and sales. of tickets, triggering strikes, lockouts and bitter conflicts.
Meredith Snow, president of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which represents the players, said the unions and management mostly seemed to be working together more amicably than they were then – at least for now. .
“There’s more recognition that we have to be a united face for the community,” said Ms. Snow, violist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “and that we can’t bicker or we’ll both go down. . “
“You meet,” she said, “or you sink.