Alberto Mingardi  

Trade unions at the opera

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Richard Epstein has a very interesting column on how "Unions Take High Culture Hostage". The whole thing is well worth reading. Epstein sets off from a recent concert at Carnegie Hall, that was called off because of a surprise strike.

Writes Epstein:

The incident at Carnegie Hall raised more than a few eyebrows when it was revealed that the strike was organized by the five full-time Carnegie Hall stagehands who were members of Local One. Their annual compensation in wages and overtime averaged a cool $419,000 per year, making them--one properties manager, two carpenters, and two electricians--five of the seven highest paid workers at Carnegie Hall after Carnegie CEO Clive Gillenson. (...)
As befits the sorry state of labor relations in the United States, the dispute was not about the status of these five workers. Rather, it focused on the new jobs that would open upon the completion of a new education wing in 2015. Mr. Gillenson was not exactly breathing fire when, well-coached in the pitfalls of labor law, he eschewed any anti-union sentiment and announced that he expected union workers to take the stagehand slots in that new facility.

This would be basically no news in Europe. In the last season at La Scala, perhaps the most famous opera theatre in the world, the staff went on strike in April canceling a performance of Macbeth. The year before, La Scala hosted a novel ballet based on the pop songs by Italian singer Vasco Rossi: not quite Wagner, but an attractive event for many. The premiere was canceled by another strike. The same year the premiere of another ballet, Roméo et Juliette (based on the music of Hector Berlioz), was canceled, as the members of the chorus wanted extra compensation as they were asked to sing onstage while dressed up in costume, which purportedly made them "stage actors.". Watching the Unions stretching their muscles at La Scala is as common as listening to a Verdi opera.

In his masterful "Law, Legislation and Liberty" (Vol. 2 The Mirage of Social Justice), Hayek writes that "the considerations of a supposed 'social injustice' which have led to the most far-reaching interference with the functioning of the market order are based on the idea that people are to be protected against an unmerited descent from the material position to which they have become accustomed". Quite clearly, however, "to ask for protection against being displaced from a position one has long enjoyed, by others who are now favoured by new circumstances, means to deny to them the chances to which one's own present position is due". Epstein echoes Hayek by writing that "competitive markets that allow for free entry and continuous wage and benefit adjustments will produce far better results over the long haul than monopolistic unions that say they advance so-called social justice".

This resentment of the loss of the accustomed positions, or in some cases the resentment for the erratic development of accustomed positions, is unfortunately very common in the world of cultured music and art generally. This may be due to different reasons. These professions are by definition "intellectual", and intellectuals tend to reject competition as inherently hostile to intellectual freedom. Furthermore, concert halls and museums tend to be either non profit organizations (in the US) or government funded ones (in Europe). Non profits can compete very aggressively for donations, but they are different animals than corporations. Government funded bodies tend to become dependent on government funds. Likewise, the fact that these bodies "produce" high culture tends to reinforce their sense of entitlement. After all, they reason, consumers may prize whatever they like for whatever reason they like it "on the market," but government should finance high culture qua high culture, regardless of the specific performance of a given theatre in attracting the paying public.

Those that operate in the world of culture often believe they deserve their "accustomed position", and consider economic performance irrelevant, given the absolute "necessity" of perpetuating high culture. I suspect this contributes to reinforce the stranglehold of unions and, in the long run, the inefficiencies of a system that cares not to depend on "competitive markets that allow for free entry and continuous wage and benefit adjustments".


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
mike shupp writes:

400.000 dollars for regular time AND overtime, plus (presumably) some sort of health insurance and vacation time.... Next to executive wages these days, that's not so much.

Granted it's more than most non-union workers make, but they do have a union. And I suspect they have a fair amount of experience in lighting up and staging operas and other productions -- not exactly common skills among people hired off the street. Maybe that experience is being paid?

Really, rather than being outraged, I'd think you guys at Econlog ought to point to that account with joy. Behold the libertarian ideal! Humble working men making livable wages in New York City, rewarded as they deserve for their skill and years of experience! This is what laborers should aspire to -- capitalism in action, providing decent pay for decent work, rather than a government handout.

Admirable, isn't it?

liberty writes:

I'm not so sure that would be "no news" in Europe, or at least in some countries--are you including the UK?--where usually the strikes are about the workers and wages, not just about jobs, and where in many cases the wages being discussed are a lot lower. When the pay is extremely high and there is still a strike it does make the news and there is public discussion about it, especially if it is in the public sector.

When I lived in London in the mid-70s I discovered that there were small theaters that called themselves 'clubs'. To see a performance of a play or a chamber music group, you had to first become a member of the club for a nominal fee--say, 50 pence--then you could buy a ticket for a Pound or two.

That was their way of getting around not only the unions, but also the fire regulations.

MingoV writes:

"... Humble working men making livable wages..."

These workers and their unions are no different than the longshoremen and similar union workers: they receive unwarranted compensation via extortion of their bosses and threats of violence to "scabs." Those are not libertarian or capitalist ideals.

I worked in Queens back in 1997, and we needed to build a large laboratory. There was a brief discussion about using lower cost contractors with non-union workers. The discussion ended when one of the committee members presented a list of recent construction projects that used non-union workers. Every one of those projects was sabotaged multiple times, and all those projects switched to contractors with union workers. Welcome to the real world of unions.

Terc writes:

I've worked as a stagehand in NYC for 21 years. Up until recently I've always worked free-lance. I've worked union calls alongside Local 1 members and I've worked non-union gigs as well. I'm afraid the notion that union wages reflect the experience level of its members is utterly false. There are competent union members and incompetent ones, but competency is decidedly not a factor in membership. A large number of local 1 members have their card because their father or grandfather or uncle is already a member. For someone with nothing but a high school diploma (if that) it is a terrific career. If you don't mind unloading semi-trucks when you're 65 years old. A large portion of local 1's members care little or nothing for the performing arts.

Local 1 operates exactly like a cartel. They keep wages high by severely restricting admittance to the union and preventing non-union workers from competing with members.

Mark Brophy writes:

I didn't invent Twitter or become a stagehand. I feel like an idiot!

Troy Camplin writes:

No news in Greece, anyway. When I visited for a month in 2005, there was a garbage worker's strike going on, ending only a week after I arrived (such a lovely smell in June in Athens). I missed a performance at a Greek (later Roman) theater in Athens due to an actor's strike, and I missed another performance at another ancient Greek theater due to a transit strike, meaning I could not get to the place (having to take a train to a bus). Worse, the transit strike was a sympathy strike to support striking bank workers. It would have been less aggravating if I had not been in Greece specifically to see the ancient theaters. I did see several, but I never did get to see an actual performance at one -- all because of strikes.

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