Here is a typical day for the 800 backstage workers at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, as described to me by Joe Hartnett of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents some of the unions at the facility:
Performers come in to rehearse on Monday at 8 a.m., with a full set and lights. Rehearsal lasts until midafternoon. When it’s over, stagehands strike the set and the lights, move them offstage, and assemble the different sets needed for that night’s performance. That show goes on, and after it ends, a second-shift crew strikes that entire set and puts it away, and positions the set for rehearsals the next morning. The Met does not do consecutive performances of the same opera, so the stagehands never get a day where they can just keep the set in place, with well over 200 performances per year to manage. And the whole time, other backstage workers are building sets for the next production, taking them from ideas scribbled on a cocktail napkin to completed work. “They do this every single day, 365 days a year, for 138 years,” Hartnett explained.
For the last year, Met stagehands have not performed this ritual. On March 12, 2020, the Opera told every backstage worker to leave the building, and no new performances have been conducted since then. In December, the Met locked out its stagehands, after the IATSE Local 1 contract, which covers several hundred backstage workers, expired during the coronavirus lockdown, and negotiations faltered. The Met is seeking an across-the-board 30 percent pay cut, plus cuts to overtime, sick, and vacation pay, health insurance, and other benefits, from workers who have not received a paycheck in an entire calendar year. The Met initially offered a $1,500-a-week “bridge payment” in exchange for this pay cut, but as there has been no agreement, that payment has not been delivered.
30% pay cuts? Why, why:
The Met says that in 2019, a fulltime stagehand earned, on average, $260,000, including benefits.
Oh, OK, fair enough. Even in Manhattan that’s serious money.