We, the teaching artists of the Metropolitan Opera Guild (MOG), ratified our first contract on July 5.
The ratification came after a year and a half that included many months of organizing, a petition, a strike, a labor board hearing, and six long months of contract negotiations. Without a doubt, the ratification was a very exciting and satisfying moment for all present.
Throughout the course of this journey, I was constantly impressed by the depth of commitment of my fellow teaching artists.
Back at the very beginning, during the organizing campaign, we were unanimous in our view that the program in which the majority of us work, “Creating Original Opera,” is a unique, wonderful and important program to implement in schools.
But we also agreed that the pay was abysmal, raises (if any) were selective, and benefits nonexistent.
By simply starting a dialogue, we discovered vastly different wages paid for the same work, and a great deal of confusion over what MOG’s policies were.
Unionizing brought us together as colleagues and friends, which was especially fulfilling since the programs in which we work usually involve only one artist at a time, successfully prohibiting us from getting to know each other.
TAKING A STAND
Many of us had seen great, newly-trained teaching artists leave MOG’s employ after their first in-school residency because they realized the pay offered for the amount of work required was way below industry standard.
Artists who had worked long-term for MOG were also considering severing their ties for similar reasons.
Something had to change, and the first change had to come from us. We needed to take a stand.
Stands had been taken in the past, but only by individuals or small groups. No resulting changes had been made by MOG that truly addressed the issues at hand. The decision to unionize came directly from the frustration we all felt at not being heard. We finally realized that if we all got together and said the same thing at the same time, MOG would have to sit up and listen.
But they didn’t make it easy for us.
STRIKING FOR RESPECT
The open petition we submitted was essentially ignored, which led to a strike in the summer of 2003.
Only five teaching artists were scheduled to work at that time, but they were willing to forego their summer paychecks for the betterment of the group at large, in the hopes of changing the Guild’s mind by throwing a wrench into their very important nationwide Teacher Training program.
During the meetings leading up to the strike, I heard teaching artists who were not involved offer whatever financial assistance they could give to those who would be losing income. This impressed me greatly. It represented how close our group had grown, that five were willing to take the hit for all 40, yet the others were also willing to help and give up something if necessary.
(We also owe a debt of gratitude to Local 802, not only for their constant support but for the generous strike pay.)
During the strike, the tension was alleviated by the rapport that had grown in our group: humor was never far off, encouraging e-mails were sent to the strikers daily, and support was offered from those far away in the form of phone calls and letters to the teachers MOG had hired to cross the picket lines and teach in our stead.
With all this encouragement, the strikers maintained their positive outlook, stuck it out the full eight days, and consequently sent a strong message to MOG in the process.
Ultimately the issue went to the labor board, which decided (and very quickly) for the teaching artists.
This year, exactly one year after the strike, Lynn Marlowe and I, along with Peter Hoyle, are privileged to be the first teaching artists to work under the conditions of our new contract.
It is a great feeling to know that we are getting more than just a paycheck. There is now money going towards our health insurance, and our employer now will pay taxes and social security on our behalf. We are receiving a fair wage for the hours we are working, and most importantly, we are no longer expected to work extra hours or have end-of-day meetings without compensation.
Next year there will be a small raise and the start of pension contributions.
But I think the most exciting advance we made with this new contract was the across-the-board wage increase we won for every MOG teaching artist working in the public schools during the school year.
Even those who did not actively participate in the unionizing campaign (other than signing the petition) will now earn (some of them) nearly 15-30 percent more.
Although there is always room for improvement in any contract, the teaching artists of the Metropolitan Opera Guild are thrilled with ours and hope that it will serve the “Creating Original Opera” program by allowing teaching artists to feel appropriately compensated for their work and, consequently, to remain in MOG’s employ.
Judith Lane is a teaching artist at the Metropolitan Opera Guild (Education Department).
METROPOLITAN OPERA GUILD (MOG)