Unions say arts organizations are using pandemic to leverage pay cuts, layoffs

“My biggest grievance is losing my sick pay. That’s pretty tough, especially now that I’m sick,” said Talvacchio, 31, who still has her ...


“My biggest grievance is losing my sick pay. That’s pretty tough, especially now that I’m sick,” said Talvacchio, 31, who still has her job as manager of patron services and volunteers at Dance Place in Northeast Washington. “After working there so long, I accrued quite a bit. I feel a little cheated.”

The laid-off workers belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 868, which in April reached a tentative agreement on a new — and only the second ever — contract with Strathmore. The music center started the recent layoffs before notifying the union, according to its leaders, prompting it to file complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. Union members, who would have been selling tickets to the outdoor art installation “Monuments: Creative Forces,” are instead staging socially distant protests before the event.

“They have taken advantage of the pandemic, and their intent is to break the union,” said Anne Vantine, business agent for Local 868. “They are using these people as pawns.”

Strathmore chief executive Monica Jeffries Hazangeles declined to answer questions about the layoffs, saying through a spokeswoman that she could not comment on issues still under NLRB review. But the spokeswoman said the layoffs were among 31 this summer, when the music center reduced its staff by almost 40 percent, to 59 employees.

The Strathmore standoff illustrates the rising tensions between unions and performing arts organizations across the country as they try to find common ground during an unprecedented crisis. Unlike natural disasters or economic recessions, whose recoveries start immediately, the pandemic has no predictable timeline. No one knows when it will end, or when recovery will begin.

And that complicates the already tricky business of contract negotiations. The uncertainty is pushing performing arts executives to ask unions to renegotiate the terms of existing contracts and accept significant cuts on new ones that will outlive the pandemic by many years. The severity of the crisis leaves them no choice, they say.

“It’s a question of survival. We all have to collectively roll up our sleeves and say we’re in it together, and it requires sacrifice on all sides,” said Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, which has contracts with 15 unions representing about two-thirds of its 3,000 employees.

It’s also a question of fairness, say union leaders. With no performances to give, scenery to build, costumes to make or mend, or patrons to show to their seats, hundreds of thousands of arts employees have been out of work for months, causing severe and widespread hardship. The unions argue that the companies can’t cut off workers now and expect them to return when they’re ready to reopen. They also say that if concessions are made during the shutdown, salary, benefits, staffing minimums and guaranteed hours should be restored to pre-pandemic levels once things return to normal.

“Our membership is not inclined to sell out their future. In some cases the demands are 30 percent cuts [in the future] for short-term payment now,” said Leonard Egert, national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, a union representing singers, dancers and stage directors that has 65 collective bargaining agreements with organizations across the country. “That’s a difficult prospect.”

They may have different views on what’s fair and equitable, but both sides agree that labor talks will be the most important task this year.

“Things are going to get more tense before they get better,” Gelb said of the negotiations. “It’s going to be a painful process for everyone.”

Performing seasons lost

The nation’s performing arts companies have been hammered by the global pandemic. Opera companies, dance troupes, orchestras, theaters and performing arts centers went dark in March with the expectation that they would reopen within a few weeks. But weeks turned to months, months to seasons, and now many are not planning to reopen until next spring or summer. The Metropolitan Opera announced last month that it would open Sept. 27, 2021.

To survive, companies have laid off some employees and furloughed others. Many received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to keep staff on the payroll during the early months of the crisis. And they took comfort knowing that furloughed staff were receiving enhanced unemployment benefits. But those emergency programs have expired while the pandemic-related closures have been extended. What was a difficult situation in the spring has exploded into a battle for survival.

“The normal union-labor negotiation is just completely thrown out the window when you’re in this worldwide, once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” said Ford’s Theatre director Paul Tetreault. “It’s about survival. If I don’t survive by furloughing people, by not paying people, what does it matter what contract we have?”

Even in an unprecedented global crisis, labor contracts have protections for workers and rules for bargaining that employers must respect, said Mark Gaston Pearce, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Institute at the Georgetown University Law Center and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency charged with preventing and resolving unfair labor practices.

“An employer can unilaterally act, but when it does, it has an obligation to bargain over the effects of the unilateral decision,” Pearce said. “A lot of employers have been good at acting collaboratively with unions, but many are exploiting the circumstances.”

Organizations large and small are asking their union partners for contract concessions, said AGMA’s Egert. They have reached agreements with the Washington National Opera and the San Francisco Opera, he said, but talks with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Met have been more difficult. The union’s bottom line is to maintain its members’ health insurance and a percentage of guaranteed work or pay.

“We are realistic. We know these companies have no revenue coming in,” he said. “But the artists, they have to survive, too. They claim that the artists are part of the company, part of the family. If there’s ever a time to take care of your family, it’s now.”

‘It’s tough for everybody’

Contract negotiations are typically shrouded in secrecy, with some organizations requiring nondisclosure agreements to be signed by all at the table. The Met employs about 2,500 union workers, and labor costs make up two-thirds of its $300 million annual budget. Gelb said the company is seeking significant cuts now and in the future to help it recover. He declined to provide details.

“We’re offering a significant percentage of base pay now, so they can survive in the short term,” he said. “But it has to be based on the Met’s survival long term. It’s tough for everybody.”

Egert says it’s unreasonable to ask workers to accept long-term pay cuts that will stretch beyond the pandemic.

“We don’t know what opera or dance is going to look like in two, three, five years,” he said. “The framework we’re going on is when we get back, we snap back to where we were, with built-in cost-of-living increases.”

Negotiations between the Kennedy Center and IATSE Local 22 stagehands have turned bitter and progress is slow, according to two union members familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose what has transpired. Local 22 represents about 400 workers, and almost all have been unemployed since mid-March.

Several union members accuse the Kennedy Center of playing hardball and using the pandemic for long-term gain. Negotiations began this summer on a new contract: The first proposal sought 40 percent cuts in salary and benefits; the second offer was 25 percent, the members said.

“It’s clearly an attempt to take advantage of the situation. It’s despicable,” said a staff stagehand. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford my home, and you are forcing me to take a pay cut when I’m not working? They are not negotiating in good faith.”

The union workers pointed to the $25 million federal grant the arts center received in the spring to help it continue to pay its staff.

Local 22 President David McIntyre said the parties are talking.

“I’m not enthusiastic,” he said, declining to provide details. “I wish the Kennedy Center would recognize the stagehands are hurting more than they are.”

The Kennedy Center has collective bargaining agreements with 13 unions and is at various stages of negotiations with all of them. The Washington National Opera, an arts center affiliate, agreed to extend its current contract with AGMA for a year. (The stagehands’ Local 22 said they made the same offer and it was refused.) In April, the arts center reached a deal with the National Symphony Orchestra musicians that yielded $5.5 million in savings, according to the arts center, more than the estimate announced in April. And on Wednesday, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra agreed to 25 percent cuts to its contracts with the center and the WNO, representing $1.7 million in savings.

Ellery Brown, a senior vice president who is leading the Kennedy Center’s negotiations, was not available for comment, but Kennedy Center spokeswoman Eileen Andrews said in an email that the arts center is hopeful it will be able to work with the unions to “alleviate the shared financial impacts and extreme stress on our organization due to covid-19.”

“The Kennedy Center has made deep and painful cuts to its administrative staff and overall budget while presenting very limited programming and is mindful of the impacts this will continue to have on staff and artists,” she said. “Financial uncertainty remains and timing of a full reopening is unclear. Therefore, we must continue to urgently reduce expenses to reflect the reality of diminished revenues this season.”

Other organizations are trying to find solutions, too. Ford’s Theatre has eight staff stagehands working under a contract that guarantees 40 weeks of work a year. The workers were paid through the end of last season, even though the theater was dark for the final three months. But this season is another story, as the closure has been extended through the year and spring productions may have to be scrapped, Tetreault said.

“The agreement was put into place to guarantee work when we’re producing. Since 1968 this has never been an issue,” the director said. “The theater is shut down. There is no revenue. There is no work. The idea that, as we furlough half our staff, we will pay you is ludicrous.”

Jeff Montague, a Local 22 member who has worked at Ford’s for 38 years, said the theater and union have a long and good history, and that will help to resolve the current issues.

“There is no conflict,” he said, “if people are talking.”

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Newsrust: Unions say arts organizations are using pandemic to leverage pay cuts, layoffs
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