Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Union Threatens to Bring Down City Opera

That's the impression one gets from the latest news on an increasingly bitter labor dispute at New York City Opera. The Opera, facing very difficult financial circumstances. The most recent opening gala was a bitter disappointment, drawing only 250 people. Fundraising has been difficult, due, of all things, to regime uncertainty. George Steel, the opera's general manager, says“The labor strife puts a crimp in our ability to raise money. People are waiting to see what happens.”

In an effort to keep things afloat, the Opera has moved out of its home at Lincoln Center to different, less expensive office space, cut its administrative staff by 43% and is hoping to slash its budget from $31 million down to $13 million. That is serious cutting. In order to accomplish this goal, Steel says the Opera's labor contracts with the musicians must be restructured. Ah, as Hamlet might say, there's the rub. The musicians union is in no way appreciative of this effort and it is easy to understand why. Their present contract pays musicians $40,000 a year plus provides health insurance. The new contract desired by the opera company would reduce their salary to $4,000 a year and take away their health care coverage. The union has threatened a strike that they know full well could bring the Opera down completely.

The worst thing, however, from the point of view of the union is that Steel wants the freedom to hire non-union musicians. Gail Kruvand, a double bassist and chairwoman of the orchestra negotiating committee, is quoted in the report that“They want to turn this into a freelance contract and hire whoever they want." That is the crux of unionism. Labor unions ultimately fight for restrictionist wages. They do not wish increase their compensation through restricting their own labor. They hope to do so by restricting the labor of others.

The dispute has most recently went to arbitration where both sides of the dispute met with a federal mediator in an effort to keep the fat lady from singing.


  1. I don't know why they're complaining: they'd still be getting over $300 a month before insurance costs. That's fine compensation for the time they need to practice their liitle instruments. Music is a fine hobby (and I hear it helps at math), but neither it nor opera makes any tangible product nor contributes materially to the economy except for a few elitist CD sales. I say screw the union.

  2. Horto,

    As I said, the musicians are understandably miffed, and they no doubt find the offer insulting. I doubt that Steel will get anything near the salary cuts he wants. He may have been severely low-balling his proposal to allow for bargaining room.

    Nevertheless, my main point is that to be successful, a union's bread and butter lies in restricting the ability of others to compete for the jobs of their membership. As reported, what really gets the union's goat is that, in their eyes, the opera wants to "hire whoever they want."

    The bottom line is that City Opera has to pay its bills. If it cannot, it will shut down, a potential outcome that suits the union just fine if they can't come to an agreement.

    If City Opera does have to shut down due to insolvency, that is a sign that there are not enough people who value the performances of City Opera highly enough in order to voluntarily provide them enough of their income in order for them to cover the costs of producing opera.