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Metropolitan Opera Locks Out Stagehands in Pandemic-Related Salary Dispute

Labor dispute has broken out at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

An ugly labor dispute, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has broken out at New York's Metropolitan Opera. On November 20, the New York Times reported that the Met had made an offer to many staffers who had been furloughed without pay in April. The plan would pay them up to $1,500 a week, starting now if they would accept up to 30% pay cuts; the Met promised to restore 50% of the 30% once its box office revenue returned to normal.

The offer reportedly got a chilly reception and, following a meeting with IATSE, which employs the Met's 300 stagehands, which went nowhere, the Met announced a worker lockout. "I realize it is incredibly painful what we're asking them to do," Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, told the Times. "But what we're trying to do is keep the Met alive, and the only way to achieve that is to reduce our costs."

In a statement issue December 8, IATSE said, "Since March, the union has repeatedly stated we would not tolerate employers attempting to exploit the pandemic in order to erode the standards we worked so hard to establish in the first place. On the matter, IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb said, 'It's outrageous for the Met to lockout its stagehands during the pandemic, and to leverage them for conditions the company was unable to get in normal times. It's opportunistic, despicable, and demonstrates a real lack of compassion for so many in these already trying times.'

"While it is disappointing Met bosses have chosen to lock out workers during a pandemic, it is not surprising. This is just one of several high-profile disputes with the Met since Peter Gelb took over as the general manager. In 2019, Met Opera hair and makeup artists were forced to vote to authorize a strike after Met management refused to compromise on pay issues for months, though a deal was reached before any workers actually walked off the job. And in July 2014, Gelb threatened to lockout union workers after pointing the blame at the Met's unionized workforce for overrun costs, despite him ignoring his own mismanagement and rampant cost overruns unrelated to labor costs.

"The Met's workers are the Met; there is no Met without a workforce that can support themselves and their families. The costs of the current crisis should not and cannot be shifted so labor must carry the entire burden. In this pandemic we must truly be in this together to survive, and it is shameful that Peter Gelb and the Met's management don't seem to agree."

In addition, the members of Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds, which includes Actors' Equity, the Federation of American Musicians, various IATSE locals, issued a statement which says, in part:

"As an affiliate of the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds (COBUG), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local One stagehands do not stand alone in the lockout by the Metropolitan Opera. All of the affiliates -- many of whom are facing the same draconian, long-term wage and condition cuts from the Met Opera management -- stand united with our sisters, brothers, and kin in Local One.

"While workers are furloughed and waiting for live performances to safely return, the Metropolitan Opera has conditioned limited supplemental financial assistance on the unconscionable demand that workers accept 30% cuts in wages and less favorable working conditions, all of which would last well past the COVID-19 pandemic and the return of live performances. In addition, stagehands were told they must accept this 'deal' or be locked out of their employment, despite already being furloughed and unemployed.

"New Yorkers pride ourselves on coming together in any crisis to help one another for the greater good. Stagehands are no different. As the pandemic has brought live performances to a halt, we have seen stagehands use their skills to volunteer to help the greater NYC community. They are volunteering by building face shields for medical workers, assisting in making facemasks and PPE, and helping Encore Community Services to provide food assistance for those living in Hell's Kitchen and the Theatre District. All of this has been happening while these same members of the theatrical community face a lack of work, uncertainty about when work will return, unemployment assistance expiring, food insecurities, concerns about housing, and seeing friends, coworkers, and loved ones get ill or sadly succumb to COVID-19.

"Sadly, in contrast with the civic spirit of a resilient NYC and its people, the Metropolitan Opera is using this pandemic to its own benefit to lower worker pay and eliminate conditions at work for perpetuity under the guise of short-term financial assistance that may not even last until performances can once again reopen.

"COBUG's members understand and see the choice Local One stagehands are faced with and will stand together with them. To borrow a phrase from the NYC stagehands -- 'We are all One!'"

LSA will report updates as they happen.

(11 December 2020)

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