Think opera plots are tough to follow? Try wading through the complicated drama playing out offstage at the Metropolitan Opera. At its most basic, it's the story of management and labor unions fighting over a supposedly dwindling pot of money. The deadline to solve the squabble before a lockout, midnight Thursday, was met with little resolution but a 72-hour extension.
Nothing about the Met's labor imbroglio is elementary, including its large cast of characters. On one side you have Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager since 2006, and his counsel, Howard Z. Robbins, the attorney who represented the National Hockey League in its 2012-13 lockout.
Negotiating with Gelb are hordes of workers. About 2,400 of the Met's 3,400 employees are union members. They cover a broad swath of activities ranging from singing in the chorus, playing in the orchestra, dancing, painting sets, running the box office, singing solo roles, working in the call center, posting bills (advertising posters), running cameras and taking tickets. Three of these unions (Local 32BJ, Local 30 and Local 210) reached agreements Thursday. Here is a list of the unions involved:
AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) — chorus, soloists, dancers, stage directors, choreographers
AFM Local 802 (American Federation of Musicians) — orchestra, librarians, music staff
Directors Guild of America — directors and stage managers
IATSE Local One (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) — carpenters, electricians
IATSE Local 4 — parks crew
IATSE Local 751 — box office treasurers
IATSE Local 764 — wardrobe, costumers
IATSE Local 794 — camera crew
IATSE Local 798 — wig/hair and makeup artists
IATSE Local 829 — scenic artists, scenic, costume, lighting, sound, projection designers
IATSE Local 829BP — bill poster
IBT Local 210 (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) — call center
IUOE Local 30 (International Union of Operating Engineers) — building engineers
IUPAT Local 1456 (International Union Of Painters And Allied Trades) — painter
SEIU Local 32BJ (Service Employees International Union) — ushers, ticket takers, cleaners, porters, security, office services
The negotiations are now being conducted with the help of two officials from the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), Deputy Director Allison Beck and Commissioner Kathleen Murray-Cannon.
The workers aren't always exactly unified. Each union has its own concerns and strategies. If one of the largest three unions — AGMA, IATSE Local 1 or AFM Local 802 — strikes a deal, it could greatly influence the negotiations for the remaining parties.
There have been many pronouncements about Gelb's artistic vision, the ups and downs of his tenure, the successful productions, the innovative Live HD movie theater broadcasts, the critical failures — even his attitudes about the viability of the art form.
Gelb's bottom line is that there's enough money to sustain the Met as is. "No matter how you slice it," he told NPR, "opera is incredibly expensive." Gelb, who claims that two-thirds of the company's costs are labor related, would like to cut some of the unions' benefits, especially when it comes to the convoluted structure of overtime pay.
The unions say Gelb is simply spending too much and that the company's $2.8 million deficit doesn't warrant the nearly $30 million in cuts he seeks. The Wall Street Journal recently took a look at Met expenses on specific productions and box office potential. Plenty of hand-wringing can also be found over the high salaries of both Gelb and some of the union members.
The debate seems particularly acrimonious this time, due partly to the fact that so much of the drama has played out in our 21st-century media — something you couldn't say about previous Met labor disputes, which date back to 1885.
Among the most debilitating in recent times were the disputes of 1969 and 1980. President Carter had to intervene in 1980, sending a telegram to the unions and management pleading for a resolution to save the season, which had been indefinitely postponed. In 1969, failed contract talks forced the Met to open its season three and a half months late.
How this season will be affected is still anyone's guess. It's a positive sign that three of the unions have already settled and the chorus showed up Friday for a rehearsal of The Merry Widow. Still, they are among the smaller groups.
Gelb released a statement Friday, saying, "We want to work together with union representatives, and do everything we can to achieve new contracts, which is why we've agreed to an extension." The president of AFM Local 802, Tino Gagliardi, also weighed in, saying that while Gelb's move to postpone the lockout was constructive, "Settling this dispute in three days is highly unrealistic."
In Detroit, protests continue over the city's massive effort to shut off water to thousands of customers who aren't paying their bills. Activists call the move a violation of a basic human need, while city officials call it an economic reality.
Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department has been accruing a massive debt for decades — in part because officials say there was only a token attempt to collect past-due bills. By this year, about half of all water customers were behind on payments, owing a combined $90 million.
So officials here launched an aggressive campaign targeting back payments, using the time-honored utility tactic of shutting off water service until payment arrangements were made.
Some Detroiters are split on the move.
Along the city's busy Woodward Avenue, longtime residents like Clifford Durham say water customers should have known what was coming.
"It's a shame that it's happening, but they had options and budget plans like, 10, 15 years ago," Durham says. "Tell 'em your situation. Don't wait 'til your bill is $300 or $400 and get a shut-off notice," he says. "The protesting that's gonna go on for the water I think is ridiculous."
A Cause Celebre
The sheer number of people shut off — 17,000 — has led to frequent demonstrations and some international attention. The United Nations declared it a human rights violation. Activists, a federal judge, even movie stars like actor Mark Ruffalo — who portrays the alter ego of The Hulk in the Avengers films — joined in what's truly become a cause celebre.
"There's no reason that this city and this state, with all of its wealth, can't come up with some sort of a program to keep this water from being turned off. I mean, it's insane," Ruffalo said.
City officials say they are setting up payment plans for residents, and add that more than half of those who had their water shut off subsequently paid their bills and had service quickly restored.
But others have tried to block the shut-offs, pouring concrete over water mains tagged by the city with blue paint — a kind of scarlet letter indicating the pipes there should be closed.
Tutorials have also spread on Facebook describing how to get water flowing again. Detroiter Nita O'Neal says it's relatively easy to find someone with the kind of long metal keys that open closed water valves — even though only city workers are supposed to have them.
"People gonna turn that water back on. Somebody has a water key, trust me. You give 'em $5, you gonna get your water back on," O'Neal says. "People have to have shelter, food and water."
Turning the water back on that way is, in fact, a crime — it's stealing water. But for families with little or no income, O'Neal says, the stakes are too high to worry about that.
"You got babies that's probably not taking baths. That's opening up the door for protective services to come in, say that you are unfit parent," she says. "This is a game that they're playing, and it's a serious, dangerous game."
City officials counter that water rates are going up in part because people game the system. Paying customers, they say, have to cover the costs for those not paying their bills.
But Water and Sewerage Deputy Director Darryl Latimer says the department wants to cooperate with customers, even those who argue water should be a right, not a privilege.
"I think water is a right. However, if all of our customers took that stand — that it's a human right and we're not gonna pay — then no one would have water," Latimer says.
It remains very much an evolving situation in the city. The water and sewerage department recently began targeting past-due commercial and residential customers, then declared a two-week moratorium on all shut-offs.
Detroit's emergency manager put Mayor Mike Duggan in charge of the formerly autonomous water system. But the department itself remains a bargaining chip in Detroit's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. The city wants out of the water business and the debt it carries and is pushing to either regionalize or privatize the system.
A Pentagon plan to cut tens of thousands of soldiers from the U.S. Army's ranks in coming years goes too far given the growing global threats, including Russian aggression in Ukraine and unrest in Syria and Iraq, a bi-partisan review panel says.
In an advance copy of a report titled Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future that was obtained by NPR's Tom Bowman, a panel that includes former Defense Secretary William Perry and retired Gen. John Abizaid, who was the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, warns that the proposed cuts are too deep.
"Since World War II, no matter which party has controlled the White House or Congress, America's global military capability and commitment has been the strategic foundation undergirding our global leadership," the report's authors write. "Given that reality, the defense budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, coupled with the additional cuts and constraints on defense management under the law's sequestration provision, constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States."
"The effectiveness of America's other tools for global influence, such as diplomacy and economic engagement, are critically intertwined with and dependent upon the perceived strength, presence and commitment of U.S. armed forces," they write.
But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel disagrees with the panel, according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.
The panel endorses the Pentagon's plans in some areas, such as trimming pay and medical benefits, but it says the recommendation to draw down the Army to 450,000 goes too far. Instead, the panel says the Army should not go below 490,000 - the same figure that Army leaders had wanted.