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Who Won the Met Negotiations?

0 Robert Levine

According to Norman Lebrecht and Terry Teachout, the unions did:

(Lebrecht) [Gelb]demanded 16-17% cuts from the orchestra and chorus and settled for 3.5 percent now, 3.5 percent later. No huge pain for the musicians, but huge gain. They have won the right to be party to major spending decisions, limiting Gelb’s powers as manager and probably shortening his time in office.

(Teachout) While I claim no inside knowledge of the Met’s operations, it looks to me as though one of two things has happened: Either Mr. Gelb exaggerated the company’s plight as a negotiating tactic, or the unions ate his lunch. If he was exaggerating, then he’s made a fatal mistake. Everything that Mr. Gelb said prior to sitting down to negotiate left the widespread impression that he would do whatever was necessary, up to and including a lockout, to drag the Met back from the brink of financial apocalypse. If he says it all again in four years, nobody will believe him—nor should they.

For my part, I think it more likely that he underestimated both the determination of the Met’s unions and the pro-labor political climate of New York. If so, then it makes sense that he would have settled at the last minute for face-saving token pay cuts, abandoning the root-and-branch work-rule reforms that have long eluded other managers in the big cities of Blue America. Perhaps Mr. Gelb can contrive to slash costs far enough to keep the Met afloat without fatally compromising its artistic mission. But from the outside, what he’s done so far looks like what the political leaders in Chicago and Detroit spent a half-century doing: dodging the hard choices and assuring themselves that it’s always possible to defer the fiscal apocalypse a little longer.

Two points in response. The first is that, while Gelb didn’t get all (or even most) of what he was asking for, he did get the Met unions to take the first pay cut (at least in nominal dollar terms) in the company’s history. Obviously the unions didn’t walk into these negotiations proposing pay cuts, and any relief expressed by the unions is simply because the alternatives to the settlements they reached with the company were so much worse. I can assure both commentators that the unions would much rather have raises and not have to monitor management’s spending than the reverse.

The second, and more important, point is that “who won?” is entirely the wrong lens through which to view a labor dispute. An old friend of mine, Chuck Ullery (principal bassoon in St. Paul) once had the unfortunate privilege of negotiating what was considered a concessionary agreement at the time. When asked by Minnesota Public Radio who won the negotiation, Chuck responded “that’s like asking who’s winning your marriage.” Labor negotiations can feel a lot like combat. But the result is not supposed to be victory or defeat - it’s simply a chapter in an ongoing relationship. It is entirely possible that the Met settlements will be good for both the musicians and the management and/or board when compared with the alternatives; there was no reason to suppose that a lockout was going to help ticket sales or fundraising in the long run, after all. It’s also possible that the settlements will prove a mistake, but, if so, it’s one that both sides will pay for. The Met’s unionized workers have a powerful interest in having a strong and well-funded employer, and I’m pretty sure they know it.

Having said that, it’s true that Gelb’s rhetoric going into this dispute might backfire on him. But so might have staying on course. If the board is behind these settlements, his position over the long term is not necessarily any weaker. Locking out the workers didn’t help Michael Henson, after all. And learning to work with the unions on the direction of the company could well be a plus for him.

There are too many moving parts at an institution as big as the Met to be able to make confident predictions about its future. Teachout was more correct than he likely knew to qualify his statement that “what he’s done so far looks like …dodging the hard choices” with the preface “from the outside.” And there’s no one on the inside - at the Met or anywhere else - that’s inside enough to really know how this is all going to play out.

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