'We are the Met': Labor tensions flare at prestigious New York opera
Demonstrators, including locked-out stagehands, backstage workers, musicians, opera singers and supporters of The Metropolitan Opera protest during a rally over an ongoing labor dispute(AFP)

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied Thursday in front of New York's prestigious Metropolitan Opera to protest a lockout of stagehands, part of a lengthy labor dispute over proposed wage cuts.

Workers including electricians, technicians and craftspeople were joined by musicians, actors, union representatives and local politicians over the lockout dating back to December 2020, when contract negotiations collapsed.

"We are the Met!" people chanted at the rally, which punctuates months of tensions threatening the globally renowned institution's fall season.

The Met employs more than 3,000 staffers, the largest performing arts organization in the United States. The pandemic forced its stages dark in March 2020, when it furloughed all of its union members.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees says the Met and its general manager Peter Gelb have negotiated in bad faith, demanding 30 percent wage cuts that would remain in effect even after live performances recommence.

Met management disputes that its proposed cuts will be that deep or long-lasting for the average employee, but insists reducing salaries is necessary to sustain the house's future.

Workers -- who operate one of the most technologically advanced stages in the world -- accuse management of using the pandemic as leverage to force what they call unfair contract stipulations, and to union-bust by outsourcing work during the lockout.

"It's an exploitation of a health crisis that has decimated our industries and caused our country tremendous grief," said Matthew Loeb, the international president of the IATSE.

The labor rally comes days before the opera will perform in front of a live audience for the first time in 430 days, with two shows slated for Sunday.

"It's sad," said Carl Mulert of the local branch of United Scenic Artists.

"There are second- and third-generation people who work at the Metropolitan Opera; this is their home."

'Slap in our face'

This week, the Met reached a tentative agreement with the union whose representees include chorus members and soloists, the specific terms of which are not yet public. That ratification process is set to begin later this month.

The union for orchestra members, along with music staff and librarians, has accepted bridge payments but is still negotiating over the conditions of longer-term contracts.

All were out Thursday supporting the stagehands, who say the Met has sent production jobs overseas to Wales for two operas, and work for its fall opener to a non-union shop in Los Angeles.

"It's a slap in our face," said Peter Tudor, a 63-year-old electrician employed at the Met for 25 years.

The Met Opera told AFP in a statement it "has no desire to undermine" its unions, but "having lost more than $150 million in box 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."

New York lawmakers have loosened live performance restrictions in recent weeks, and several top Broadway shows have announced their fall return.

The Met -- which drew criticism for livestreaming pay-per-view concerts during the pandemic featuring artists outside its orchestra -- is aiming to open September 27.

That reopening hinges in part on resolving its ongoing labor disputes -- and both sides accuse the other of stalling.

"We all want to get back to work," said Kathryn Bloss, a painter at the Met for three decades. "We have a very detailed sort of work that is our heart and soul.

"We are the Met... it is a family."