I have a confession. One year ago, I had no idea what Twitter was supposed to be used for. Back then, as Vice Chair of the MET Orchestra Committee, I had taken it upon myself to create a better online presence for the MET Orchestra in preparation for our upcoming negotiations. Unfortunately, I soon realized that I had no idea how to do so. Luckily, a tech-savvy percussionist came to my rescue. He assured me that he could build a website very cheaply. We purchased the URL, and we were off and running.
Several months later, I suddenly found myself Chair of the Orchestra Committee, and Met management presented us with proposals for the most devastating cuts to our members in recent history. The next day, management presented their view of these cuts in The New York Times—an occurrence that would repeat itself again and again. We realized that we would be fighting a war on two fronts—at the table and in the press.
We decided that our strategy would be to get as much data from management as possible, and then to back up all statements in the press with this data. Everyone in the orchestra was warned that anything they said on social media could be quoted in the press. We asked everyone to sign a pledge of solidarity and save money for what seemed to be an impending lockout. We began to create a packet of information entitled “How to Survive a Job Action,” and we advised our members to get their medical and financial affairs in order.
One of the most important components of our battle plan was our Public Relations Team. This was officially formed in February, immediately following management’s proposals. Our positive web presence was very helpful in maintaining our rational, professional image. Our fantastic team consists of people who update the website, authors, “journalists” who conduct interviews, photographers, a documentary filmmaker who is married to one of our violists, researchers, and news analysts.
All this preparation was happening while we waited for the Met to provide financial information. We didn’t get the majority of it for months, but in the meantime, another extraordinary team emerged who, together with the vast wealth of experience of our current committee and Local 802, started the process of combing through the data that began to trickle in as a result of our requests.
As we went through the Met’s 990s and other financials, we started to see a pattern emerge of budget increases that were definitely not due to our base salary. Furthermore, we discovered that management’s proposed cuts would be far more devastating than they would admit, and would be achieved through slashing virtually every aspect of our current contract. We could never agree to these cuts, and they were all the more inapporpriate given how the Met was spending its money. In addition, we embarked on a project that researched major reviews of new productions that have premiered under Peter Gelb. We discovered that the reviews were overwhelmingly positive for the orchestra and overwhelmingly negative for the productions.
These statistics called into question decisions that were being made to spend an enormous amount of money on productions that were not delivering at the box office. Yet we were providing artistic excellence each and every night. We expanded our team and began collaborating with members of IATSE Local 1 and AGMA, and a unique alliance emerged, representing the artistic backbone of the Met.
Slowly, armed with our data-driven arguments, we started winning the public relations battle. Jennifer Maloney of The Wall Street Journal was one of the first major reporters to publish our interpretation of the box office numbers. As the lockout deadline approached, it was our understanding that city government officials were calling Peter personally asking him not to lock us out, as he had publicly said he intended to do if we did not agree to these drastic cuts. We began to put together our final presentation that outlined our own cost saving proposals. Instead of cutting the livelihoods of the artists, we proposed cuts to the new productions and other excessive expenditures, but also understood that some of these cuts would reduce labor costs as well.
When we made our cost saving presentation to management, immediately afterwards, we sent it to the press and the Met Opera Board of Directors. We felt we had made a significant impression in the press and that the Met management began to understand the outrage a lockout would cause. We kept repeating that we would continue to negotiate until we reached a deal, but the threat of a lockout was not helping, and management had not changed its position since February. On the day before the lockout, the Met suggested bringing in a mediator. This was a huge shift, and we felt that the pressure that had been created by our ability to challenge the Met’s financial assertions was one of the major reasons behind this change in course.
The mediators were able to postpone the lockout for seventy-two hours. Every Met employee would therefore receive another month of health insurance and a paycheck that week, which we considered a huge win. During the weekend, we gave the mediators a copy of our presentation. The idea of an independent financial analyst was broached. Thirty-six hours later, Eugene Keilin was on board, and a lockout was staved off for another seven to ten days. Both sides were able to present their arguments to Mr. Keilin. Our presentation was over three hours, this time with the help of AGMA, which gave him a powerful and thorough understanding of our perception of the Met’s financial situation.
Without going into the finer details, the concessions that we agreed to came at a steep price for the Met. The contract calls for a 3.5% reduction of our total compensation. How the subsequent 3.5% reduction, effective in six months, will be felt is to be negotiated this fall. Then there is a 3% increase in the final year of the 4-year term. There are no changes to our healthcare or pension, unless mutually agreed upon this fall. However, due to the Equality of Sacrifice language in the Memorandum of Agreement, the Met administration must match this wage reduction, and additionally, the Met must reduce its own budget by $11.25 million annually. This can come in the form of cutting a new production, using less rehearsal time, or simply by making less excessive choices in costumes or other materials. The continued involvement of the independent financial advisor is key. There will be monthly meetings, and he can request to meet with select board members or any employee at the Met. There will also be an “Efficiency Task Force Committee” enacted to help further identify the cost savings reductions that we had been proposing all along.
The final step in our process was to take the idea of these mutual concessions public, so that the Met management would be held accountable in the public eye. It is our hope that this unprecedented agreement to oversight will assure a brighter future for the Met.
It’s been a crazy ride, but at least now I know what Twitter is good for!
Editor’s note: This is adapted from a presentation at the ICSOM conference in Los Angeles