Teachers United!

Artists Reflect on 802's Seventh Teachers' Campaign

Volume CIII, No. 6June, 2003

Margie Duffield with Dan Ashkenasi, Lynn Marlowe and Greg Pliska

(The following story was written by teaching artists who work in the Metropolitan Opera Guild Education Department. Teachers at MOG have presented management with a formal, public petition demanding union recognition, marking the seventh group of music, art, dance and drama instructors to unionize with 802. For more information, and to send an e-mail of support, please visit

We gathered at 3:00 p.m. on May 2 in front of the fountain at Lincoln Center Plaza to deliver the document.

A small core group presented the open petition demanding union representation to the powers that be at the Metropolitan Opera Guild Education Department. Every single active working teaching artist signed the petition. The 38 signatures represent over 95 percent of all artists who have worked for the Guild during the last several years.

That afternoon was the beginning of a new chapter in our organizing odyssey and the close of our initial organizing process – a nine-month push that began after years of isolated debate and concern over employment conditions for teaching artists at the Metropolitan Opera Guild (MOG).

With yearly revenues of close to $20 million, and net assets of approximately $35 million, MOG is the extremely successful fundraising arm of the Metropolitan Opera. One vital component of MOG’s operations is its highly respected education program. With an operating budget of nearly $2 million, it consists of artists’ residencies, teacher-training and other initiatives aimed at developing and implementing school-based opera programs.

The motivation for organizing arose out of our great respect for and investment in the MOG education department, and our concern for the ability of many of us to continue working there without any benefits or say over the terms of our employment. We desperately needed to implement benefits, better working conditions and the ability to negotiate a binding contract that addresses artists’ concerns.

All of these issues reflected our larger desire to have the work we do be regarded with greater respect and care – and to be treated accordingly.

“I’ve worked consistently for MOG and its Creating Original Opera program for 12 years,” artist-in-residence Dan Ashkenasi told Allegro. “It used to have the feel of a family, where one’s individual abilities and input were valued, where one would be heard and supported. In the last six years I’ve seen the organization take on a more and more regimented and inflexible corporate mentality. The artists, who originally helped develop the curriculum, are now required to implement it under increasingly inflexible circumstances.”

“My main reason for unionizing was to make the working conditions better for all teaching artists,” said Lynn Marlowe, a MOG artist-in-residence of six years. “Some of the issues, such as health insurance, will not affect me as much as other teaching artists. But I want these vital issues dealt with for my colleagues. Everyone at MOG is so talented, experienced and creative. The work of our teaching artists has gone past just an activity – it’s an institution, and we should be rewarded with the pay and benefits we deserve.”

The process began as we started to break down the silence between the artists. “The first step was simply sharing information,” said Greg Pliska, a 16-year veteran MOG teaching artist. “Once we sat down and compared notes about fees, hours, salaries and conversations with management, our frustration and dissatisfaction turned to solidarity and action.”

That was the key – to break down the divide that had been created between the artists through individual negotiations and arrangements with management, and to come to a shared understanding of our situation.

The next step was to move forward and enlist as many of the teaching artists as possible.

“The unanimous support was immensely gratifying,” said Pliska. “Not a single teaching artist was against the action; from the busiest teaching artists to those who haven’t worked in several years – everyone was willing to attend meetings, participate in the democratic process and sign the petition. We all feel a victory based on our solidarity alone.”

What was most thrilling about our efforts was not just accomplishing the difficult task of getting almost everyone’s signature on the petition – it was the fact that organizing gave us the opportunity to come together as a group like never before.

“Organizing has allowed us to get to know each other better and to meet in person instead of just being names on a contact list,” said Ashkenasi. “Consequently, old friendships have deepened, and new friendships are being formed.”

In addition, the meetings gave us the opportunity to articulate our needs and to understand where we stood and where our actions might lead us.

“The meetings that we held were invaluable,” said Marlowe. “Until now, we had been very separated at MOG, so it is a relief to learn that everyone feels the same way. We realize that we all want to keep the program strong, and the best way to do this is to treat the artists fairly. Unionizing is an important first step, and we all agree it’s not about creating an adversarial relationship with MOG. It’s about working together to come up with positive solutions.”

After months of preparation, the final signatures were added to the petition just before the May 2 meeting. “Seeing nearly 40 signatures on a petition – people whom I’d worked side by side with for 15 years next to people I’d never met – was an amazing rush,” said Pliska. “We shared daily email updates of signings, and one could tell that the slightly tattered petition was tracing a meandering path around the metropolitan area. But the final result spoke volumes about the commitment of the people involved.”

“I hope that this can be a first step to not only win better pay that is more in line with other leading teaching artist organizations, graduated health and pension benefits, and a better working environment, but also to bridge the wide divide that has grown between management and artists,” concluded Ashkenasi. “We want this to lead to a culture within the organization where everyone is treated with respect, and the artists’ contributions are a valued and integrated element of the Guild’s profile.”

For the latest updates in the campaign, visit this site or call the Organizing Department at ext. 191.