When the coronavirus outbreak brought performances across the United States to a screeching halt, many of the nation’s leading orchestras, dance companies and opera houses temporarily cut the pay of their workers, and some stopped paying them at all.
Now, hopes that vaccines will allow performances to resume next fall are being tempered by fears that it could take years for hibernating box offices to rebound, and many battered institutions are turning to their unions to negotiate longer-term cuts that they say are necessary to survive.
The crisis is posing a major challenge to performing arts unions, which in recent decades have been among the strongest in the nation. While musicians at some major ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, have agreed to steep cuts that would have been unthinkable in normal times, others are resisting. Some unions fear that the concessions being sought could outlast the pandemic, and reset the balance of power between management and labor.
“Historically, labor agreements in the performing arts have been moving toward more money and better conditions,” said Thomas Morris, who led major orchestras in the United States for more than three decades. “And all of a sudden that isn’t an option. It’s a fundamental change in the pattern.”
Nowhere is the tension between labor and management more acute than at the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts organization in the nation. Its artists and other workers, many of whom have been furloughed without pay since April, are resisting an offer by management to begin receiving reduced wages of up to $1,500 a week again in exchange for long-term pay cuts and changes in work rules. After failing to reach an agreement with its stagehands, the company locked them out last week, shortly before more were scheduled to return to work to begin building sets for next season. …