At the Met, Conflict Management in a Minor Key

By — on / Conflict Resolution

This spring, the Metropolitan Opera opened labor talks with the 16 unions representing its workers, whose contracts all expire at the end of July, the New York Times reports. Labor and management agree on one fundamental point—that the opera is struggling financially amid falling ticket sales, a depleted endowment, and growing expenses. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, they disagree on where needed budget cuts should come from.

Met management has asked for 16-17% salary cuts from its workers. The unions have refused, saying the company should shrink its rapidly increasing budget by scaling back on new productions and trim administrative spending.

D. Joseph Hartnett, the assistant director of stagecraft from the opera’s stagehands’ union, struck a conciliatory note, saying “We can save the Met…but it means all of us working together to bring the budget in line.”

Because the two sides cannot agree on the facts at hand, they may have difficulty coming to a negotiated agreement. The unions say that the Met’s labor costs have risen about 20% since 2007. The Met says the figure is closer to 29%.

Complicating matters, one of the more prominent unions has been taking a hardball approach to the negotiations.

The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), which represents the opera’s chorus and others, invited members of the media to its talks with management, according to the Times.

The Met then filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on the grounds that having the press at the bargaining table would hinder an “open and transparent dialogue, which is critical to a productive negotiation.”

The AGMA also has publicly warned its members to prepare for the possibility of a lockout next season, and its leader has sent sharply worded messages, since made public, to the Met’s general manager.

The contentious tone being used by some union leaders does not bode well for collaborative negotiations. Nor does the prospect of members of the media attending talks—or, barring that, the possibility that details of negotiations will continue to be leaked to the press.

When parties to a conflict are aware that their discussions will be made public, they often feel compelled to escalate the dispute to prove to their constituents that they are taking a tough stance. A more promising route would be to work together privately to find solutions that might meet each side’s interests.

Many American opera companies and orchestras have struggled financially in recent decades, as they fail to woo younger audiences and look for new business models to help them stay afloat.

The result has frequently been painful labor negotiations and even lockouts and strikes. The Minnesota Orchestra, for example, recently endured a 16-month lockout that finally ended when the musicians agreed to a significant cut in pay. The unions representing Met workers would be wise to study such examples with an eye toward striking a more collaborative tone in negotiations with management.

Related Article: In College Athletics, Dealmaking Could Be a Win-Win

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