nymag.com graphic

The Daily News ran a weird op-ed today by two Competitive Enterprise Institute scholars, F. Vincent Vernuccio and Adam Michel. In the piece, the authors assert that “all around the nation, orchestras … are going silent, crushed by inflexible union contracts that … limit managers’ ability to make decisions.”

Here’s the example with which the authors lead:

Take the case of the beleaguered New York City Opera, whose financial woes have led to a recent announcement that it would be forced to take unpopular austerity measures. In an effort to keep the music alive, City Opera aims to find a cheaper space than the David H. Koch Theater, where it pays $4.5 million a year, and reduce its 48-member staff.

That’s the kind of union intransigence that has threatened school reform ….

Not so fast. Last month, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians and the American Guild of Musical Artists issued a symbolic vote of no confidence in City Opera’s director, George Steel.

Guild Executive Director Alan Gordon went so far as to say he would rather not have a City Opera than give in to the cuts. “In that form, City Opera doesn’t deserve to exist, and if you can’t run City Opera as the people’s opera, then someone who can should take over,” he told The New York Times.

So when the City Opera this month announced a new schedule that would allow it to keep performing around the city, the union responded with protests and litigation. It has gone so far as to ask state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to keep the City Opera from moving, alleging that it “has breached its fiduciary duty.”

Um, no.

Sure, it’s probably true that the City Opera unions have done something bad, sometime, contributing to the opera’s woes (although it’s not in the article).

But anyone who has been following this local story knows that blame for the opera’s current “beleaguered” status lies squarely with the opera’s management and board.

City Opera is homeless and almost schedule-less now because four years ago, its board hired a parody of a parody of a European to rake in the big bucks to spice things up.

Gerard Mortier closed the opera for a year to do a massive renovation, meaning that the company lost operating revenue and took on the risk that subscribers would find something else to do.

Mortier also needed to massively ramp up the operating budget for his fancy-artiste productions, in contrast to City Opera’s old business model, which was fewer-frills standbys like Don Giovanni. That meant using long-term endowment funds until the bucks started to roll in.

What happened? Mortier couldn’t raise the money for his vision, and, well, he quit in a huff. Whose fault was that?

Not Mortier’s (for thinking, also, that he could run City Opera largely from Paris). It was the donors’ fault, of course. As Mortier said to the Times:

But it was a miscalculation to think that when I came, there would suddenly be enormous fund-raising. … People in New York don’t know my name, they don’t know me. I don’t know if that’s my fault or their fault. I think it’s their fault. I don’t want to be pretentious, but in some things I know what I am worth. But you know, that’s New York. It’s a world city, and at the same time it’s provincial.

So now the opera, to save face with the little money it has left, is going to put on a traveling show of sorts in cheaper venues throughout the city.

Is this a good idea? Not really. New York’s traditional — provincial, I guess — opera lovers are accustomed to going to Lincoln Center.

Where does the union fit in to all this?

As Vernuccio and Michel note, it voted no confidence in current management. In that, most of the old City Opera’s fans are probably in agreement.

And, as the authors also note, the union has filed a complaint with state AG Eric Schneiderman, noting that two major donors to the opera had intended for their money to support operations at Lincoln Center and nowhere else.

Indeed, the donors’ direction was that their money was “exclusively for the benefit of the constituent companies of Lincoln Center,” they said in their certificate of incorporation decades ago.

Donor intent is important — and it seems that there’s at least a reasonable question here.

To recap: barring some new extra-textual revelation, this debacle is management’s fault, not the union’s fault. It’s an important distinction.

In the public sector, too, state and local woes are management’s fault, not unions’ fault. In many cases — though not, apparently, this one — management woes have to do with union power, but in those cases, too, it is the fault of management for giving unions too much power in the first place.

You may also like

How a Medicaid Program To Improve Nursing Home Care Ended Up Paying for Union Benefits

New York State's budget-making process sometimes works like a closed loop, as interest groups on the receiving end of state spending reinvest a portion of their proceeds to lobby Albany for still more money. Read More

Turning NY’s Yellow Buses Green Could Cost $8B+

New York in 2022 imposed the largest unfunded mandate on schools in a generation, requiring them to replace their buses with electric models. New price data indicate the cost is still rising. Read More

The Election Day After Tomorrow

New York’s “cap and invest” program (NYCI), a central part of the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, appears designed to hold back much of the program’s sticker-shock until January 2027—after the 2026 election. Read More

How Eliminating the Medicaid ‘Gap’ Would Perpetuate Inequity in Hospital Funding

A change in Medicaid reimbursement currently being pushed by New York's hospital industry appears likely to benefit high-end hospitals proportionally more than safety-net institutions, a review of hospitals' financial repor Read More

Union Membership Dropping in NY Too

The decline in union membership observed nationally appears to be occurring in New York as well. Read More

Hochul’s ‘Straight Talk’ on Medicaid Isn’t Straight Enough

Arguably the biggest Medicaid news in Governor Hochul's budget presentation was about the current fiscal year, not the next one: The state-run health plan is running substantially over budget. Read More

NY private employment was flat at end of 2023

New York's post-pandemic employment recovery stalled in the final quarter of 2023, with the state ending the year still 76,400 private jobs below its February 2020 level. Read More

Construction Unions Beg To Get Into SUNY

Weeks after state university officials warned about looming deficits, state legislators and construction unions are pushing to make SUNY’s financial picture worse. Read More