Sunday, October 6, 2013

Union Disputes: Sad, Eye Opening, or Laughable?

After last week's unfortunate news involving the Minnesota Orchestra and the New York City Opera, it was nice to have a good laugh after reading articles on Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times about Carnegie Hall's stagehand union dispute.

For the past year, Carnegie Hall Corporation has been negotiating with the stagehand union, Local One, about the hall's new education wing. According to the president of Local One, Carnegie Hall did not plan to employ stagehands in the new wing, which led to a strike. One performance last Wednesday night involving the Philadelphia Orchestra, Joshua Bell, and Esperanza Spalding was cancelled because of this.

Other than the fact that a labor union single-handedly took down the concert of an internationally-acclaimed orchestra, here's why this story made headlines: Carnegie Hall's tax documents (public records) show the amount of payouts to its unionized laborers. The average stagehand salary is $400,000, meaning that a few of the stagehands made more money than Carnegie Hall's CFO. The executive and artistic director of the hall even stated, "The stagehands have one of the most lucrative contracts in the industry."

The Wall Street Journal made some very interesting claims about Local One, which the media outlet has said is responsible for "driving up production costs and ticket prices and inhibiting the evolution of New York theater. Union control has been particularly punitive toward organizations trying to expand their reach through advances in technology like webcasting and movie-theater simulcasts." The article then goes on to describe Local One's membership, claiming that the organization is dominated by a group of white sons and brothers. Their primary goal? Ensure that the top-tiered workers (who happen to be related to one another) bring home the highest salaries.

The whole debate, which has since been negotiated, brings up topics of discussion regarding the role of unions within the classical music world. I think it's easy for us all to agree that the goal of a union is noble and just -- to protect workers from being exploited or overworked. However, when does this become burdensome to the institution that the union is supposed to support? Stagehands do have an important role in a concert-going experience. However, I doubt that anyone who pays to see a concert would attend for any other reason besides the music and the experience, itself. So why should stagehands be making more than most of the people (musicians, especially) that are the "faces" of the institution? More importantly, if the classical music world is failing due to high ticket prices and lack of technological progress, as the WSJ describes, it is very unfortunate for a labor union to hinder arts organizations from being a viable source of entertainment in the 21st century.

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