When the coronavirus outbreak stalled performances in the United States, many of the country’s leading orchestras, dance companies, and opera houses temporarily lowered their workers’ pay, and some stopped paying them altogether.
Hopes that vaccines will allow services to resume next fall are tempered by fears it could take years for hibernating coffers to recover, and many troubled institutions are turning to their unions to negotiate longer-term cuts that consider them necessary to survive.
The crisis poses major challenges for the performing arts unions, which have been among the strongest in the country over the past few decades. While musicians from a few large ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, have agreed to steep cuts that would have been unthinkable in normal times, others resist. Some unions fear that the requested concessions could outlast the pandemic and restore the balance of power between management and work.
“In the past, working arrangements in the performing arts have turned into more money and better terms,” said Thomas W. Morris, who directed major orchestras in the United States for more than three decades. “And suddenly that’s no longer an option. It’s a fundamental change in the pattern. “
Nowhere is the tension between work and management as great as at the Metropolitan Opera, the largest organization for the performing arts in the country. The artists and other workers, many of whom have been on leave without pay since April, are resisting an offer from management to receive reduced wages of up to $ 1,500 a week in exchange for long-term wage cuts and changes in work rules. After failing to reach an agreement with its stage workers, the company locked them out last week just before more were due to return to work to begin building sets for the next season.
But musicians in a growing number of orchestras are agreeing to long-term cuts, recognizing that it may take years for audiences and philanthropy to recover from this lengthy period of darkened concert halls and theaters.
The New York Philharmonic announced a new deal last week that will cut base musician salaries by 25 percent from $ 153,504 to $ 115,128 per year by mid-2023. Then some of the pay will be restored, but players will still earn less than they did before the pandemic, when the contract expires in 2024. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the richest ensembles in the country, agreed to a new three-year contract to cut pay by an average of 37 percent in the first year, gradually increasing in subsequent years, but fully recover if the orchestra meets at least one of three financial benchmarks. The San Francisco Opera agreed to a new deal that will cut the orchestra’s salaries in half this season but gain some ground later.
Unions play an important role behind the scenes in many arts organizations. The contracts they negotiate not only set out pay, but also help create a wide range of working conditions, from the number of permanent members of an orchestra to the number of stagehands required behind the scenes for each performance up to the question of whether additional payment is required for Sunday performances. It is not uncommon for large orchestras to end rehearsals abruptly in the middle of the phrase – even when a famous maestro is conducting – when the digital rehearsal clock indicates that they are about to work overtime.
Workers and artists say many of these rules have improved health and safety and increased the quality of performances; Management has often come at a cost.
Many performing arts nonprofits, including the Met, faced real financial challenges even before the pandemic. Now, they say, they are struggling to survive, taking leave or laying off administrative staff and seeking relief from the unions.
“Unions are very reluctant to make concessions. It goes against everything union strategy has told them for over 100 years, ”said Susan J. Schurman, professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Rutgers University. “But they clearly understand that this is an unprecedented situation.”
At some institutions, including the Met and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, workers are accusing management of taking advantage of the crisis to push for changes to their long-standing union agreements.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, wants to cut workers’ wages by 30 percent and restore only half of those cuts when box office revenues recover. He hopes to get most of the cuts by changing the work rules. In a letter to the union that represents the Met’s 300 or so stagehands, Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, he wrote last month: “The health crisis has exacerbated the Met’s previous financial fragility and threatened our very existence.” He also wrote that the average full-time stage worker cost the Met $ 260,000 including services over the past year.
“In order for the Met to get back on its feet, we must all make financial concessions and sacrifices,” Gelb told staff in a video call last month.
There are 15 unions at the Met, and while the leaders of some of the largest unions have said they are ready to agree to some cuts, they are pushing for changes that would outlast the pandemic and redefine the rules of work they long fought for – especially after so many workers, including the orchestra, choir, and legions of backstage workers, endured many months without pay. The Met Orchestra, represented by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, said in a statement that management “is taking advantage of this temporary situation to permanently invalidate the contracts of the workers who manage the performances on their global stage.” .
Leonard Egert, the national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents choir members, soloists, dancers, stage managers and other representatives of the Met, said the unions saw the difficult reality and were willing to compromise. “It’s just that nobody wants to sell out the future,” he said.
In Washington, the stagehands at the Kennedy Center are waging a similar battle. David McIntyre, president of Alliance Local 22, said he had been negotiating with the Kennedy Center for months to demand a 25 percent wage cut, which union members find hard to bear after many of them have left without pay since March.
Management is also calling for concessions like the elimination of the hour and a half on Sundays, a change that is more permanent than limited to the pandemic. Union members are particularly outraged that the Kennedy Center received $ 25 million from the federal stimulus bill passed in March.
“They’re just trying to get concessions from us by taking advantage of a pandemic when neither of us is working,” McIntyre said.
A Kennedy Center spokeswoman Eileen Andrews said that some of the unions working with already accepted wage cuts, including the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra, and that recovery from the pandemic must be achieved through “shared sacrifice”. ”
Corporations have lost tens of millions of dollars in ticket revenue, and the prospects for the philanthropy they rely on for survival remain uncertain. While union negotiations take place over video calls rather than the typical stuffy meeting tables, both sides recognize the financial fragility.
In some ways, the pandemic has changed the negotiating landscape. Unions, which usually have tremendous leverage because strikes stop benefits, have less at the moment when there are no benefits to stop. Management leverage has also changed. While the Met’s threat to lock out its stagehands if they didn’t agree on cuts was less of a threat at a moment when most employees were already out of work, its offer was to pay workers who haven’t had paychecks since April , in exchange for long-term agreements can be hard to resist.
In some institutions, memories of the devastating power of recent labor disputes have helped foster collaboration in this crisis. In the Minnesota Orchestra, where a bitter lockout kept the concert hall dark for 16 months from 2012, management and musicians agreed on a 25 percent wage cut until August.
And the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which had its own hard-fought labor dispute last year, was able to agree on a five-year contract this summer that initially cut player pay before gradually increasing it again.
The last time a national crisis of this magnitude affected any performing arts organization in the country was during the Great Recession, when organizations sought cuts to offset declines in philanthropy and ticket sales, sparking strikes, lockouts, and bitter disputes.
Meredith Snow, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which represents the players, said work and management seemed – for the time being, at least – for the most part more friendly than they did then.
“Rather, there is the realization that we have to be a unified face for the community,” said Ms. Snow, a violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “and that we cannot argue or both will go.” Low.”
“They come together,” she said, “or you sink.”