IATSE vs. the Metropolitan Opera

IATSE letter to the Met Opera Board of Directors, page 1

New York’s Metropolitan Opera is in financial trouble, and fingers are pointing to assign blame. Peter Gelb, the Opera’s General Manager, is seeking pay cuts from several unions, one of which is near and dear to my heart. (Not. Here is the story about how I was personally sued by IATSE – they claimed that as treasurer of IATSE Local 128 I’d stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars, which was either a gross error on their part or a bald-faced lie.) The unions claim the Met’s financial shortfalls are Gelb’s fault, and are requesting participation in the Met’s financial oversight. (Because unions are so good at numbers – see previous parenthetical.) I’ll bet there’s enough fault to go around, including a dwindling audience. The Wall Street Journal reports that the average male chorus member at the Met earns $200,000 per year, which is a pretty damning statistic in itself.

This news comes on the heels of recent trouble at Carnegie Hall, wherein IATSE members went on strike and forced the cancellation of a benefit concert. Their gripe was that Carnegie Hall wasn’t planning to hire additional union stagehands for its new education wing. The Village Voice reported that the non-profit’s five full-time ITASE stagehands earned an average of $419,749 per year AFTER pay cuts. Forbes magazine defended the salaries, citing the union’s negotiating skills and the highly specialized nature of the work. It may be specialized work, but I’ll bet I could collect a few thousand theater technicians from around the country who’d fall over themselves to work for half of what the union charges, and within a year nobody would be able to tell the difference in work quality. (Based on some of the Broadway shows I’ve seen, in some cases the work quality would improve significantly.)

IATSE President Matthew Loeb wrote a letter to the Met Opera Board of Directors. The letter is a minor masterpiece – I think it makes a compelling case opposite of what was intended. Let’s parse some of Loeb’s phrases:

“As the deadline draws near for negotiating a new agreement that, if successful, will sustain the Metropolitan Opera for years to come, we are struck by how little of what is being said and written about the members of the IATSE reflects a true understanding of how much those of us working behind the curtain love this great art form and how deeply committed we are to its perpetuation.”

That’s right. They love opera – how can we not talk and write about that? I know when I hired a mason to repair my porch a few summers ago, just about all we talked about was how much he loved bricks. Same thing with my plumber – passion incarnate. In my experience, most stagehands prefer shows to working at McDonald’s, but it would be a stretch to say more than a handful of them are lovers of art. They are deeply committed to the perpetuation of their paychecks, and who can blame them?

“Ted…Video Projection Specialist…drove to work after learning of his father’s death. He wanted to ensure that his cue for projecting the final title for that night’s performance of Madame Butterfly was covered before he traveled to New Jersey to attend to his father’s wishes at the funeral home.

“Soon after, [his wife] gave birth to their son. Ted, concerned that the Met’s computer system had been experiencing massive failures in recent days, got his family home safe from the hospital and went back to the Met Opera the next morning. He was determined to arrive in time for the international simulcast of La Damnation of Faust, as there was no backup operator or any other technician at the Met who knew how to set up and focus the show. That was also the day of the memorial service for his father.”

OK. Ted has a lot going on, and Loeb over shared a bit to work on family-friendly sympathies. My takeaway is that Ted didn’t have adequate backup, which is all too common in union and other poorly managed work settings.  I’ve known union members who refuse to train others, to protect their own jobs.

“Like her husband Ted, Arlia’s commitment to the Met family is boundless. She literally saved the Opening Night of Anna Bolena. When the costumes for the show arrived late from a costume shop in England, entirely mis-sized and without seam allowances, Arlia organized and led an expanded crew that worked around the clock in the week prior to the opening to reconstruct them all – a feat that management acknowledged was all but impossible.”

So, Arlia hired extra workers and they all put in overtime. Loeb doesn’t say this was volunteer work. I’ll bet every person was extremely well compensated. Union work rules often allow overtime pay once a certain number of hours in a given day have been exceeded, and meal penalties are paid if breaks don’t occur at specified times. I have seen base rates more than triple on some shows.

“Men’s Chorus Wardrobe Supervisor Michael…expressed the depths of our Met Opera family’s tireless love for the work we do when he said, ‘We all live and breathe the Met, whether the cameras roll or not. Throughout double shifts and six day work weeks, artists, administration, management, per-diems and steady extras all contribute to the superb effects a house like ours demands. Each and every one of us is committed to doing our bit to facilitate our opera’s true grit. Nowhere in the world exists a backstage like ours.'”

So again, from a management perspective, all of those double shifts and long work weeks are driving up the OT. Nowhere in the world can AFFORD a backstage like the Met’s, and it seems the Met can’t anymore, either.

IATSE letter to the Met Opera Board of Directors, page 2

“This season, our members noticed that one of the [large, high-power, cinema-like] projectors had developed a serious issue with its color convergence: the alignment of the red, green and blue color processing boards that surround and induce their respective colors into the optical prisms of the projector’s light engine. The repair was costly, estimated by a factory technician at $4,000.

“With the cooperation of our primary equipment rental company, WorldStage, we were able to coordinate a Christie Digital repair-training course on site. Using our ailing projector as the class subject, the convergence repair was completed as part of the training. The cost of the training course was $3,500, a $500 savings off the initial estimate for the repair work.

“By including technicians from WorldStage, as well as the Met Opera Local One IATSE Projection Crew, we were also able to split the cost of this training 50/50, realizing a total savings to the Met of $2,250. By having learned how to service these projectors, we will now be able to reduce annual repair costs to the Met by thousands of dollars in the future, a strategy that will show positive returns for years to come.”

Now, this was pretty smart. I have no problem bringing repair knowledge in-house, but Loeb obviously hopes the reader will extrapolate the savings in the example to many future applications. (As an aside, I love the unnecessary, overly technical description of the problem – intended to bewilder and impress.) The Met saved $2,250 on the projector repair, apparently the first such repair needed in five years of use across four of these models. That’s not insignificant savings, assuming the repair estimate by the factory technician was accurate (a big assumption when IATSE is reporting the figure) but this kind of breakage doesn’t seem to be a regular occurrence, either. And if the Met benefits, IATSE gets more from the deal – they received free training and the members who subsequently apply the knowledge will bill for their time. Given that high tech repairs almost always involve replacement parts, the ultimate savings will boil down to the difference between factory and IATSE labor rates.

IATSE letter to the Met Opera Board of Directors, page 3

“Our members hoped to bargain collaboratively in the spirit of family and the values shared by the Met Opera and its dedicated employees. Instead, we are being subjected not only to a narrow set of demands that ignores our commitment to achieving Mr. Gelb’s vision, but also to blindness to the savings that a more comprehensive deliberation might achieve.”

Family values. Dedication. Subjected to a narrow set of demands… Loeb pours it all on at the end, cleverly reiterating his buzzwords and hoping they’ll stick. IATSE’s supposed commitment to Mr. Gelb’s vision has been purchased at a very high price, which isn’t mentioned; although, Loeb has pointed out how much overtime his members have put in. But hey, at least they saved the Met $2,250 that one time.