Over the last few weeks, the pitch of drama has been high at one of the U.S.’s most-storied cultural institutions—the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Usually, the drama at the opera house only takes place on stage, but in this case the offstage conflict is overshadowing—and potentially derailing—the operas themselves.
The Met’s management and 16 bargaining units, representing various groups of workers from ticket takers to singers to security guards, have been at odds in a very public way over management’s proposal to cut the Met’s labor costs in order to deal with the institution’s financial struggles. With only about a month and a half until the Met’s new season opens, the pressure is on to negotiate and avoid a lockout.
The crux of the problem is a disagreement between Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb and the unions over how to best ameliorate the Met’s growing money problems. With ticket sales and donations down, management initially planned to cut labor costs by 16 to 17 percent, much to the chagrin of unions, which blame Gelb for overspending, particularly on elaborate productions.
Contracts between the unions and the Met were set to expire at the end of July, putting the opera in lockout mode if an agreement was not reached before Aug. 1. However, the parties bought themselves more time by calling a 72-hour extension to the negotiations and bringing in a mediator to conduct nonbinding sessions. Then on Aug. 3, the parties agreed to put negotiations on hold for another week while an outside analyst takes a look at the opera’s finances.
Thomas Wassel, a partner and labor law expert at Cullen and Dykman, told CorpCounsel.com that although he has no inside knowledge of what’s going on behind the scenes at the Met, he believes that both parties know it is in their best interest to get a deal done as soon as possible. “By bringing in an outside auditor to take a look at the books,” said Wassel, “both sides can perhaps be on the same page and say: ‘We know what the actual financial situation of the opera is.’” By eliminating any questions about its finances, he explained, perhaps it will be easier for the parties to reach an agreement.
Though the threat of a lockout looms if the parties cannot find a mutually agreeable solution, Wassel stressed that locking out the opera company is no one’s endgame. “The goal is to reach a settlement,” he said. “The goal is to not have a lockout or strike or some other interruption,” he said. “Lockouts and strikes are tactics, they are not end results.”
Coming up with a solution that everyone can agree on before the opera goes into lockout mode will be a challenge for the appointed mediator, Allison Beck, deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a mediation and arbitration service group. Michael Dzialo, an attorney at Pitta & Giblin who has negotiated for unions in labor disputes, including the Director’s Guild of America, said it’s hard for everyone to get what they want. “In that pure perfect world of theory that is economics, there’s a place of compromise where both sides give up and hurt a little, but neither side hurts so much so as to be driven out of the marketplace or so steamed and resentful that it almost becomes a vendetta,” he told CorpCounsel.com.
Though Dzialo is not privy to the negotiations, he said it’s likely that the Met mediator will use “shuttle diplomacy,” keeping each side physically separate, and moving back and forth between them to try and bring viewpoints closer together. Then, once the sides are close, they will be able to meet in person, hopefully productively. “If it works, it’s because you’ve gotten to the point where basically on both sides it’s got to be a shrug of the shoulder and an ‘Oh well, that’s the best we can do,’” Dzialo said.
It’s not just what goes on beyond the closed doors of the mediation room that’s important though. Both sides in this dispute have played to the theater of public opinion, sometimes in a rather operatic manner.
Gelb, for one, has made comments to the press about the unions and their pay, which Dzialo said is probably not to management’s benefit. When dealing with the public in these situations, Dzialo advises sticking to what lawyers and other advisers suggest sharing. “You do not depart from the libretto,” he said. “You do not ad-lib.”
In the current situation, both the Met and the unions will have to continue managing public relations in addition to negotiating. Part of the unions’ mission if a lockout does happen, Dzialo explained, will be explaining to the public that the indefinite shuttering was not caused by a labor strike, but by management’s activities and decisions.
“An average person does not distinguish between a strike and a lockout,” he said. “They think every work stoppage is a strike.”