RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Labor negotiations at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City are expected to go down to the wire. Contracts for 15 out of the 16 unions at the Met expire at midnight tonight. Late yesterday management proposed bringing in a federal mediator for talks with two of the unions and they haven't taken off the table the possibility of a lockout. As Jeff Lunden reports the whole fight is playing out very publicly.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Usually the drama is on stage at the Met. But for the past several months it's been in the newspapers. Jessica Phillips Rieske, a clarinetist who chairs the orchestra's negotiating committee, says the day after the unions received management's initial proposals for 16 percent cuts last February, details were leaked to the New York Times.
JESSICA PHILLIPS RIESKE: It's sort of unprecedented for us to have these negotiations in the press. That's the first time that's ever happened.
LUNDEN: But it's not the first time Met labor negotiations have turned nasty. In 1969 and in 1980 extended lockouts canceled large chunks of the company's season. Under the Met's previous general manager, Joseph Volpe, labor relations at least on the surface seemed amicable. Drew McManus is an arts consultant who's worked with opera companies and orchestras. He says after Peter Gelb took over as general manager in 2006 relations with the unions went bad very quickly.
DREW MCMANUS: Instead of going public and getting very angry, the Met in this case decided to go ahead and bring Joe back in and that seemed to be fine until now when the Met released a statement saying that they would not be using Joe and that Peter would be involved in the negotiations directly. And that's where everything kind of turned upside down.
LUNDEN: Gelb brought in attorney Howard Robbins, who represented the National Hockey League in its 2012 lockout. That was a sign says Joe Hartnett, who works for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents six unions at the Met.
JOE HARTNETT: This threat of a lockout, we view it very seriously. You know, you don't hire the attorney that locked out the NHL if you're not planning on a lockout.
LUNDEN: For his part Peter Gelb has been as vocal in the press as his critics. Here's what he told me two weeks ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PETER GELB: Certainly taking on the unions is not fun, I can tell you that. Unions, artistic workers in this country are the highest paid in the world.
LUNDEN: A Gelb told the Associated Press last week that, quote, "we need to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make them take this seriously," unquote. Michael Dzialo is a labor attorney who has represented several unions including the Directors Guild of America.
MICHAEL DZIALO: If he were my client, I'd take him backstage and slap him around a bit because he's gone off script. You do not say that, what you say is, the last thing in the world we want to do is impose a lockout.
LUNDEN: And that's exactly what the Met said in a statement when asked about Gelb's quote. Late yesterday Gelb proposed the two unions representing the orchestra and the singers, that they call in a federal mediator. Representatives from both unions said they're open to the idea if Gelb calls off the lockout. But press reports indicate that management intends to stick to its timetable. In his interview with NPR Gelb indicated that if he could negotiate a settlement with at least one or more of the two big unions
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GELB: That will give us some momentum that will enable us to reach agreements with the other groups. Certainly if we don't reach agreements then it's going to have a deleterious effect obviously on the season-opening.
LUNDEN: The unions say they're willing to continue to work and talk past the deadline. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.