I recently wrote about the efforts of Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to justify his demands for concessions from Met employees by claiming that the organization is on the brink of collapse. Among other things, Gelb has decried that “$200 million” is “going to the unions,” that the Met is “facing bankruptcy,” and that opera is “facing extinction” as an art form.
As I and others pointed out, Gelb’s numbers don’t add up and his assertions are flatly wrong. The Met has a relatively small deficit that cropped up only last year; the bulk of growth in expenses has come from Gelb's extravagant productions, not labor; the sheer size of Gelb’s demanded cuts dwarfs any realistic need; and opera companies happen to be thriving. Indeed, in just the last few weeks, companies in Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston proudly announced record-breaking increases in revenue and ticket sales.
Undeterred, Gelb recently doubled down on his many untruths in a television interview with Channel 13's Paula Zahn. He again claimed a supposed “financial crisis” at the Met, blamed “the unions” for it, and bemoaned the “endemic problem” of declining ticket sales “in every city in this country.” Obviously, Gelb isn’t the kind of guy to let facts get in the way of his talking points.
Gelb has been relentlessly flogging this false narrative for months now. But with his arguments thoroughly debunked, that begs the question: what is he trying to accomplish? And who, in fact, is his audience?
In most labor negotiations, management tries to portray its financial condition in the worst possible light. The reason is obvious: if union negotiators believe the money just isn’t there, then their demands will be more realistic and they will accept less favorable terms. Thus, the purpose of the “doom and gloom” narrative is usually to persuade the people on the other side of the bargaining table; and the intended recipients of that narrative are the employees and their union representatives.
What Gelb is doing is totally different. If his goal is to persuade the Met’s musicians, artists, and professionals of the need to accept severe concessions, that ship sailed long ago – right about at the time Gelb came out with his phony numbers. It is hard to persuade people who know your facts are wrong.
Clearly, then, Gelb’s intended audience is much broader. It includes media figures, politicians, the general public – anyone who Gelb believes might buy the notion that the Met is in trouble because of those lazy, overpaid artists and their greedy unions, and the only solution is steep cuts in pay and benefits. But to what end?
The only answer that makes any sense is that Gelb has been laying the groundwork for a lockout from the beginning. Employers who engage in this kind of media blitz typically do so only when a work stoppage has either started or is imminent. The goal is to generate outside pressure on the union and employees through newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, politician intervention, or other manifestations of public sentiment. That pressure, so the theory goes, will force the union back to the bargaining table with a more compliant attitude.
Gelb, however, hasn’t waited for a lockout or strike – he has been doing this since day one. He has carefully cultivated media and political support in his quest to paint his own musicians and artists as overpaid and underworked. An employer that genuinely wants to persuade employees that concessions are the only way for the organization to prosper will not behave like that. Only employers who fully intend to lock out their employees – to force the workers to accept concessions that will hurt – will embark on such a scorched-earth strategy.
It is worth noting that until recently, this kind of thing didn’t happen in the world of opera companies and symphony orchestras. Lockouts were unheard of. Even managements seeking concessions at least started off trying to reach a deal, and went public only when negotiations fell apart and performances were jeopardized. There was a sense among both musicians and managers that nobody benefits from a nasty public spat – not when the organization relies entirely on the goodwill of audiences and donors. It’s common sense: you can’t spend months and months demonizing the musicians, then turn on a dime and beseech the public to “support this fine orchestra!” The damage is done, and it can be long-lasting.
Unfortunately, lockouts are now part of the landscape. In recent years we’ve seen it happen in Atlanta, then in Minnesota; now we will likely see it at the Met. The managements of those organizations probably had no intention of reaching a deal at the bargaining table through good-faith negotiation. Instead, those managements decided at the outset that the best way to get what they wanted was through force: lock out the musicians, deprive them of wages and health insurance, and demonize them in the eyes of the public until they caved.
It is not easy to fight this approach, but it can be done. Musicians are realizing that they have powerful weapons at their disposal as well. Many have successfully countered management attacks through savvy use of social media. But most importantly, musicians have one factor squarely in their favor: despite managements’ vigorous denunciations of “the unions,” the people who attend concerts, and who give money to orchestras and opera companies, tend to actually like musicians. They appreciate the artistry and skill, and do not begrudge any musician’s desire to make a decent living.
After all, they aren’t going to the Met to see Peter Gelb.
-- Kevin Case