The Lyric Opera Of Chicago Fires the First Shot In A Labor War

The latest entry in the round of COVID triggered labor disputes is from The Lyric Opera of Chicago. The organization released a 14:38 video that says it is intended for company members that features General Director, Anthony Freud, and Board Chair, Sylvia Neil.

I say intended because it really seems designed more for donors and patrons as the duo spend the entire time talking about how bad of shape the organization is in financially due to COVID-19 cancellations and why they need massive, long-term concessions from their unions.

The video is a striking example of the direction some organizations are opting to go to deliver a labor dispute narrative.

At the time this article was published, the video had embedding disabled and was tagged as private, so you may want to watch sooner than later in case it disappears.

It’s worth pointing out that while there likely isn’t anyone who questions the financial impact the pandemic is having on arts organization’s revenue streams, the Lyric has a recent history of contentious labor disputes, such as a 2018 orchestra musician strike.

The subsequent agreement indicates the employer ended up winning most of the concessions they originally sought.

Out of the gate, Freud delivers a sermon of doom and gloom while lamenting about how the organization’s traditional in-person productions have ground to a halt. Unsurprisingly, this has produced a large revenue gap but what’s missing from the narrative is anything about whether the organization is exploring alternative mission driven activities that we see from other performing arts organizations.

We all know these efforts won’t replace ticket sale revenue, but we also know that digging a metaphorical hole to hide while waiting to get back to doing the one thing you’re comfortable doing is a very eggs-in-one-basket approach.

Simply put, this projects an image that the Lyric doesn’t really have a plan and can’t imagine adapting their relevance and mission driven activities in a way that current circumstances demand.

What follows is 10 minutes of laundry list complaints delivered through a filter of heartfelt exasperation.

In response to the video, the American Guild of Music Artists (AGMA) released a statement providing their take on timing and intent.

“[On 10/20/2020], your AGMA Negotiation Committee met with Lyric Opera in order to reach agreement on an Interim Bargaining Agreement that would provide some income for our members and a guarantee of health insurance coverage for those members who qualified for it for this season. Despite having met on several occasions and honing the issues, Lyric Opera suddenly pulled their proposal completely off the table. They said that they would not even discuss an Interim Bargaining Agreement with us in the future. They told us that they were only willing to negotiate the Basic Agreement, and would consider additional payments to our members and a guarantee of health insurance for qualified Artists only if we agreed to their proposed changes.

This morning, Lyric Opera announced that it was canceling the remaining productions for the 2020-2021 Season. At the same time the announcement went public, Lyric Opera held a video conference with their Artists to inform them of the cancellations. These Artists, concerned about the status of their contracts and whether their health insurance would be affected, were not permitted to ask questions or press the issue further during the meeting.

Lyric Opera’s cancellation of the season and refusal to address their Artist’s concerns is heartless.  Moreover, their refusal to commit to healthcare coverage to our members in the midst of a pandemic is appalling.”

The key take-away there is AGMA was doing what most artist unions and their employers are doing in the form of re-opening contracts to craft interim agreements to cover each new phase in the pandemic.

But now the Lyric wants to negotiate long-term agreements that provide steep and permanent concessions.

Ironically, this is the exact opposite of what’s happening at the Colorado Spring Philharmonic where the employer is attempting to assert Force Majeur to cancel a multi-year agreement they ratified a few months into the pandemic.

And that really seems to be the heart of the dispute as defined by this video: we don’t want to remain flexible and instead, want a long-term agreement that covers the worst-case scenarios we can imagine.

The whole thing reminds me of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode from 1990 where Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Guinan, dispenses the following pearl of wisdom: “When a man is convinced he’s going to die tomorrow, he’ll probably find a way to make it happen. The only one who can turn this around is you.”

They Said What?

Around the 9:50, the Lyric’s board chair makes the following remark:

“But we must keep in mind the Lyric is not a symphony, but an opera company, with many more assorted complicated costs.”

I genuinely couldn’t figure out the point in that statement other than perhaps throwing shade at orchestra administrators.

All nonprofit performing arts organization business models are fundamentally the same: you have expenses and revenue. An opera organization with a $20mm annual budget is no different from an orchestra or dance company with a $20mm annual budget.

Simply put, balance sheets don’t care about what’s happening on stage.

In the end, the point of this statement was lost. Are they trying to say running an orchestra is easier than running an opera? Is it easier for orchestra to raise unearned income? Are orchestra’s labor unions easier to deal with than opera labor unions (spoiler: they’re the same)?

For now, it seems the Lyric’s leadership is content with seeing what this tactic may produce. After all, they triumphed during the 2018 work stoppage with one of their artist unions so why not double down and apply the same approach to all their unions.

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.

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