Locked out stagehands protest outside Metropolitan Opera

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Union member demonstrators rally outside the Metropolitan Opera house during a "We Are the Met Rally," Thursday, May 13, 2021, in New York. Locked out stagehands and unions with contracts expiring this summer demonstrated outside the Met to protest the Opera's unfair treatment of workers, lockout of stagehands and the outsourcing of work. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK – Locked out Metropolitan Opera stagehands protested the use of nonunion shops to construct sets for the company's upcoming season, attracting a crowd of roughly 1,000 people outside Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Thursday.

The Met has been shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic since March 11, 2020, canceling 276 performances plus an international tour scheduled for next month, but it has announced plans to start next season in September. The company stopped pay to unionized employees on March 31 last year because of the pandemic, while continuing health benefits. The stagehands’ contract expired last July 31, and that union was locked out Dec. 8.

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James J. Claffey, Jr., president of Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), accused the Met of “using the pandemic for unreasonable and draconian cuts damaging to our families.”

The Met is having sets for Bartlett Sher’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and David McVicar’s staging of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” built at Bay Productions in Cardiff, Wales. The sets for James Robinson and Camille A. Brown’s production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the first opera by an African American composer scheduled for the Met, are being built at a nonunion shop in California.

Technical rehearsals for next season are scheduled to start in early August.

The crowd included workers from the company’s three large unions and also of its many smaller unions.

“We sell the tickets. We hang the lights. We design and build and paint the sets. We do the hair and makeup. We design and make the costumes, We dress the performers. We record the events for broadcast. We are the Met,” shouted Matthew D. Loeb, IATSE’s international president. “We were absolutely prepared to talk about making a deal to cover extra expenses, problems caused by the pandemic on a temporary basis, and the Met wants to use this as an opportunity to get things they could not normally get at the bargaining table.”

The Met often outsources productions, and company spokeswoman Lee Abrahamian said 39 of 79 stagings new to the Met in the past 13 years were manufactured in other shops.

Truckers honked horns as they drove by the midday rally. Speakers included Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, New York Senators Brad Hoylman and Jessica Ramos, New York Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal and New York City Councilmen Mark Levine and Keith Powers.

“You are one of the cultural engines that brought 65 million tourists to New York City. They’re not coming back until you're back fairly with a contract,” Brewer said, citing NYC & Company’s record figure for visitors in 2018.

The Met’s contract with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra, expires July 31, and negotiations are ongoing.

“They asked for things that would set us back 20 years,” Local 802 president Adam Krauthamer said, accusing Met general manager Peter Gelb of refusing to alter the company’s initial proposal of March 2020. “The only person who doesn’t see that his job is to reopen the arts is Peter Gelb.”

The company this week reached an agreement subject to ratification on a four-year contract starting Aug. 1 with the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the chorus.

“The Met is a union house and has no desire to undermine Local One or any of our other 14 unions,” the company said in a statement. “However, having lost more than $150 million in box office revenues over the past 14 months, we are facing the worst economic crisis in the 137-year history of the Met and must reduce our costs in order to survive.”

The Met says stagehands have average salaries of $185,000. Claffey said that figure was for 120-122 of the stagehands covered by contractual guarantees, one segment of the 261 employees on whose behalf the Met made benefit contributions.

The company says its proposal to Local One is for a reduction of 20%, with half the cut to be restored when the box office returns to pre-pandemic levels. The union said the management proposal represents a cut of 30%.

“In order for the Met to reopen in the fall, as scheduled, the stagehands and the other highest-paid Met union members need to accept the reality of these extraordinarily challenging times,” the company said.

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