Some Historical Perspective On Met Labor Relations

ITA-GUY-065The 7/23/2014 edition of New York Times published an article by Michael Cooper that reported on the communication from the Metropolitan Opera (Met) to its employees informing them to anticipate that they will be locking out union employees whose contract expires on July 31, 2014. What’s interesting to note in Cooper’s article is reference to the relatively low number of labor dispute related work stoppages in the Met’s history: a lockout in 1980 and a strike in 1969. Let’s take a moment and put that into historical perspective.

But before we do, and in case you aren’t already familiar with the difference between lockouts, strikes, and work stoppages, here’s a quick primer to bring you into the inner circle of knowledge.

Understanding The Difference Between A Strike And A Lockout

The Basics

In the realm of labor law, strikes and lockouts are types of work stoppages.

  • Strikes are initiated by the employees and is when the workers cease work during a labor dispute.
  • Lockouts are initiated by the employer and is a denial of employment during a labor dispute.
  • When applied to orchestra labor disputes, the musicians are the employees while the board (often represented by the executive administrator) is the employer and the work in question are regularly scheduled services (such as rehearsals and concerts).
  • Both sides use a work stoppage to gain leverage during negotiations and force the other side to agree to terms and conditions.

Not Always Black And White

Although the difference seems simple enough, practical implementation is a different matter. State laws regarding whether or not musicians qualify for unemployment benefits during a work stoppage vary quite a bit and are often up for interpretation on a case by case basis. Similarly, withholding wages during a lockout can be ruled illegal by a National Labor Relations Board.

As a result, it isn’t unusual for employers and employees to provoke the other to initiate a work stoppage if they feel a ruling by a state court or agency would be in their favor.

Best Practices

Just because employees initiate a strike or employers initiate a lockout doesn’t mean it was their idea. The lack of black and white distinctions behind leverage derived from initiating either action is reason enough to opt for using the work stoppage classification unless there’s room to explore the underlying factors behind each decision.

In the end, resist the temptation to assume that a strike or lockout provides leverage for the traditional instigator and instead, opt for learning more about.


The Met has enjoyed and profited from 34 years of comparative labor peace. Yes, there have been plenty of labor fights but the organization didn’t follow suit of large budget orchestra peers and use strikes and lockouts as a go-to tool for achieving contract terms. In order to help grasp just how long the Met’s latest stretch of labor peace has lasted, consider the following:

  • It’s nearly four times longer than it took the United States to devise, plan, and successfully implement the 1969 moon landing.
  • It took less time to build the Great Pyramid of Giza.
  • The full terms of the Regan, Bush (Mk. I), Clinton, and Bush (Mk. II), presidencies cover less time.
  • It took less time to fight World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam war.
  • The entire Cold War was only 25 percent longer.
  • John Lennon’s song writing career was 15 years shorter.
  • The last time the Met had a labor stoppage was the same year Mount St. Helens erupted.
  • CNN has been a 24 hour news network for slightly less time.
  • We waited less time for George Lucas to start making the second Star Wars Trilogy.
  • Cumulatively, all of the various Star Trek series have less original broadcast air time.
  • Statistically speaking, I’ll be dead before the Met will be in a position to break that record (for the record, I’m not that old).

That’s a pretty damn good track record.

It’s a shame it has to come to an end in such inglorious fashion and just in case anyone has any belief that this situation will resolve before next week, please note that there hasn’t been a peep about the potential for any sort of play and talk agreement.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

Related Posts

4 thoughts on “Some Historical Perspective On Met Labor Relations”

  1. Thanks for the perspective, Drew. Unfortunately, the way this MET labor dispute is playing out is parallel to the Minnesota Orchestra’s and SPCO’s right down to the rhetoric from management. How sad. I wish I could close my eyes and make it all go away, but that’s impossible. Dare I hope for the best?

  2. It seems that the lockout technique has been taught and promulgated at management seminars, as it has been used so consistently in so many US situations recently. Why no “play and talk”, indeed?
    What is so bad about a win-win situation for management, the artists, and the public too? Punitive ethos instead – WHY?

Leave a Comment