When the Metropolitan Opera’s stagehands finally returned to work last week after an agonizingly long furlough that was followed by a seven-month lockout as they negotiated a new contract with pay cuts, they found a time-capsule backstage.
The wings were crammed with the mammoth sets of the operas that were in rotation when the pandemic forced the Met to abruptly close its doors on March 12, 2020: “Der Fliegende Holländer,” “Werther,” and “La Cenerentola,” which had been scheduled to open that night. All had to be carted away and placed in storage so the company could begin preparing to reopen in September after the prolonged shutdown.
The stagehands returned after reaching a deal in a dramatic all-night bargaining session earlier this month in List Hall, the small auditorium where the Opera Quiz is held during the Met’s Saturday matinee radio broadcasts. Management and representatives of the stagehands’ union, Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — all of whom were required to be vaccinated to attend negotiating sessions — talked through the night, capping the deal with a 7 a.m. handshake.
“We were coming down to the wire,” said James J. Claffey Jr., the president of Local One. “If talks had dragged on any longer it may have been impossible to prepare the opera house for a September opening.”
The deal with the stage hands, which followed one that was struck in May with the union representing the Met’s chorus, soloists, dancers, actors and stage managers, increases the likelihood that the Met will be able to reopen on schedule after one of the most trying periods in its history. But a significant obstacle remains: The company has yet to reach a deal on the pay cuts it is seeking from the musicians in its orchestra, who went unpaid for nearly a year after the company closed.
“The Met has a simple decision to make,” Adam Krauthamer, the president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which started negotiating with the opera company more than three months ago, said in a statement. “Do they want to continue to have a world class orchestra. If so, they will need to invest accordingly.”
The Met, which said that it lost $150 million in earned revenue during the pandemic, and is concerned that it could be some time before its box office revenues return to prepandemic levels, has said that it needs to cut the pay of its workers in order to survive. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, initially sought to cut the payroll costs for its highest-paid unions by 30 percent, which the company said would effectively cut take-home pay by around 20 percent. (Last week, the Met learned that it would receive $10 million from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, an expected boost from the federal government that has been delayed by bureaucratic mishaps.)
The first of the Met’s three major unions to reach an agreement on a new contract was the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents chorus members, soloists, dancers and stage managers, among others. The salary cuts fell far short of the management proposal — under the agreement most types of employees will initially see 3.7 percent cuts to their pay — but the deal saves a significant amount of money by moving members to the union’s health insurance plan and reducing the size of the full-time regular chorus.
July 13, 2021, 4:53 p.m. ET
The details of the agreement with Local One — including how long and lasting the pay cuts will be, and whether there will be changes to work rules or other cost savings — will not be released until July 18, when the union’s members vote on whether to ratify it.
In the stagehands’ absence, the opera house fell into some disrepair. Some wheels on the wagons that haul sets and scenery had gone flat. The hydraulics system was in serious need of maintenance. At one point during the shutdown, two scenic backdrops fell to the ground.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration received notice that the backdrops had fallen, as well as a report of mold at the base of the orchestra pit, according to a letter from the agency to the Met. The Met said it had responded to the government inquiry and that the case had been closed; it denied that there had been mold in the orchestra pit.
The company typically spends its summer preparing for the new season, including by holding technical rehearsals of new productions, adding to the pressure to reach a deal with the stage hands.
But the successful negotiations did not entirely stave off delay and cancellation. Because the stagehands are starting work later than normal, the Met’s technical rehearsals must be moved from the beginning of August to the end of the month; as a result, the Met has decided to cancel one of its fall season operas, “Iphigénie en Tauride” which was supposed to run from Sept. 29 through Oct. 15, the company said. The season is scheduled to open on Sept. 27 with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the first time the Met is mounting an opera by a Black composer.
The Met said in a statement, “We’re pleased that our stagehands will now be immediately returning to work and that we have a clearer path to opening our season on schedule in September.”
The deal reached with the American Guild of Musical Artists is likely to set the pattern for the amount of cost savings with other unions. Part of the guild’s deal included a provision that if the other unions struck deals that save the Met less money, proportionally, than in the guild’s contract, the guild will recoup the money back. That means the Met’s negotiators will feel limited in how much they can offer the other unions.
Still, not all guild members are happy with the deal. Soloists, who will see their pay cut by a significantly higher percentage, largely voted against the plan, but their opposition was not enough to forestall ratification.
While the pressure was on the stagehands to return to work as soon as possible, the musicians have more breathing room. At the core of these negotiations is a battle to maintain the work rules that musicians have fought for over decades. The relationship between the company and the union members was tested during the pandemic, when players went without pay for nearly a year and some were forced to move out of the New York City area to save money or to contemplate selling their prized instruments.
If the Met, which works with 15 unions, can attain agreements with the three major locals, it will have a clear path to reopening on schedule, but there will likely still be more negotiating to be done. The unions that represent scenic artists and box office staff also have contracts up for negotiation.
Carl Mulert, the national business agent for Local 829 of United Scenic Artists, said that the negotiations will start out from a place of tension after the Met outsourced some of the union members’ work overseas and across the country as a result of the stagehand lockout.
“The Met has so alienated people and so angered the people who have dedicated their lives to this organization that it’s going to be even harder to make a deal,” he said. “The good will we might have had eight months ago is gone.”