Are unions the enemy of the arts?

by on December 26, 2010 at 8:09 am in Economics, Law, The Arts | Permalink

At Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, the average stagehand salary and benefits package is $290,000 a year.

To repeat, that is the average compensation of all the workers who move musicians' chairs into place and hang lights, not the pay of the top five.

Across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, a spokesman said stagehands rarely broke into the top-five category. But a couple of years ago, one did. The props master, James Blumenfeld, got $334,000 at that time, including some vacation back pay.

How to account for all this munificence? The power of a union, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. "Power," as in the capacity and willingness to close most Broadway theaters for 19 days two years ago when agreement on a new contract could not be reached.

The full article is here and I thank Victor N. for the pointer.

1 dearieme December 26, 2010 at 4:16 am

The unions are the enemy of almost everything. Though to be fair, in the old days in Britain it would have been fairier to say that they were the enemies of everything but the Soviet union.

2 RD December 26, 2010 at 4:47 am

Krugman will retort that it is a small share of the federal budget.

3 E. Barandiaran December 26, 2010 at 5:01 am

Tyler, as usual, you focus on the tip of the iceberg. Read these articles written today and the past few days:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/opinion/26sun1…. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/artihttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/23/business/23prichttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/arti

Are you going to join the bailout chorus? Are you going to call Ben B.?

4 moron December 26, 2010 at 5:26 am

I can't help but think he's simplifying their job description.

5 Michael Tinkler December 26, 2010 at 5:57 am

Moron: perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. We've all read about the specificity of union rules about who can and who can't pull a certain switch.

6 Lord December 26, 2010 at 6:08 am

The pay is usually high because the hours are few and far between. It is their power to monopolize hours that provides such high returns.

7 Albert Magnus December 26, 2010 at 6:29 am

Grsd schools are fundamentally about supplying massive research resources to the professor. There is a large surplus of PhDs in the US.

8 Dave Barnes December 26, 2010 at 7:25 am

"Colorado The Colorado Symphony Orchestra last year agreed a 13% pay cut and a month of unpaid leave for its musicians in the face of extreme deficits." http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/19/detro

"It can be particularly difficult in a market like Denver. For example, the Colorado Symphony musician's core 43-week salary hovers around $47,000 a year, about the same as similarly sized orchestras, such as the Oregon Symphony in Portland.

But section musicians in comparable cities with older, larger orchestras and more established reputations make considerably more. The basic annual salary at the St. Louis Symphony, for example, is $73,500 for a 42-week season, and in Baltimore, it's $76,700 for 52 weeks." http://www.denverpost.com/ci_9843953

"Q. How much were the musicians getting paid before the bankruptcy and what is the Honolulu Symphony Society proposing the pay the musicians under their reorganization plan?

A. According to the agreement made in September 2009, the musicians’ annual base salary prior to the bankruptcy was $30,885. Under their new plan, the Honolulu Symphony Society is proposing a 92 percent pay decrease – to just $3,256 per year to perform five or six concerts annually. In most cases this amount of money doesn’t even cover the costs of maintaining our musical instruments." http://www.honolulusymphonymusicians.org/2010faqs

Research Paper No. 1989
Symphony Musicians and Symphony Orchestras
Robert J. Flanagan
January 2008
"This paper investigates the relationship between these two facts: the
extent to which the economic difficulties faced by symphony orchestras reflect
collectively bargained wage increases and work rules." https://gsbapps.stanford.edu/researchpapers/libra

9 Counterfactual December 26, 2010 at 7:42 am

– "Are grad schools the enemy of good scholarship?"

I could name some that certainly are 🙂

10 Tim December 26, 2010 at 8:32 am

Why is this outrageous? These people ostensibly do something, and have managed to get a decent part of the pie. How much do the CEOs of these arts organizations make? Do we find this outrageous because we know what the profits are like at our companies and we're not even getting the tiniest percentage of them? One of the US's biggest problem is our desire to pull other people down to the bottom, rather than raise ourselves to the top.

Conservatism is the enemy of the Arts. And if you're going to a performance with $100/seat tickets then you're demanding that the quality of everything on stage demand a stage hand who makes $200,000. The risk is so high for any lapse in quality that salaries go up to match. Simple economics. The union is just making sure that salaries match what is being demanded of employees.

11 Guillaume December 26, 2010 at 10:23 am

I'm sure they can barely make ends meet in NYC. Raising the tax rates on salaries in excess of $250K would make them work less, without a doubt.

12 Peter December 26, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Not that it's going to happen in a million years, but if management re-engineered all of the stagehands and advertised the jobs at, say, $40,000 a year, there'd be 100 applicants for each opening.

13 Morgan December 26, 2010 at 3:30 pm

As a ny union stagehand i can add a few things.
1. The carnegie hall guys never leave the building. They work unbelievable hours.
2. One commenter mentioned walkers who dont even show up. This would be a valid point if the year was 1930.
3. The same commenter says that many stagehands sit around doing nothing. To this is say Bushwa! We work hard and with no guarantee that our job will exist the following week. Shows close all the time.Not a complaint, i chose to do this, but just the truth.
4. The stagehands earn nothing that management didnt agree to pay them. No one held a gun to them and demanded they sign a contract.
5. Find out how much carnegie hall manatement makes and then we will talk some more.

14 anonymous December 26, 2010 at 6:17 pm

4. The stagehands earn nothing that management didnt agree to pay them. No one held a gun to them and demanded they sign a contract.

Did you not read the article? Going on strike and shutting down Broadway for 19 days two years ago doesn't count?

You could also say that "Walmart employs no workers who didn't agree to work for them. No one held a gun to their head and demanded that they sign up for low-wage jobs". Oddly, unions don't buy the exact same argument when the shoe is on the other foot.

I believe it's pretty damn important to each performance that the stage, props etc. work just right. You gonna get that at $40K a year?

Didn't a stuntman get seriously injured in the Spider-Man show recently? Oops. Equipment failure was ruled out, that was determined to be human error.

Actors and dancers also have to "work just right", in fact that's far more directly relevant to the success of a show. And many of them only dream of earning as much as $40K a year, yet their performances and effort seem adequate.

Meanwhile, "moving pianos into place and bringing out extra music stands and chairs" (as per the article) is hardly exacting or precise skilled labor. In the absence of rigid union contracts, that sort of thing could be done by just about anyone (some actors could use the extra money), and only truly complicated rigging and setup would be done by skilled professionals. But then they would no longer work "unbelievable hours" and collect triple-time overtime wages.

15 RZ December 27, 2010 at 2:26 am

Always interesting which group gets singled out. Carnegie Hall performers make more than the stagehands. Carnegie execs make more, too. Are those groups enemies of the arts?
I've never understood why a union that negotiates a favorable contract for itself is evil, whereas a Donald Trump that does the same is a savvy capitalist.
As others have pointed out, the union negotiation is freely entered into with management. Management could decide to weather a strike, and their access to capital markets gives them a decided advantage, particularly in this country. Many, many managements have broken many, many unions in this country using just that tactic.
Questioning the pay scale isn't questioning the union, which is really looking out for itself as any organization would. It's really a way of saying management is incompetent because it didn't negotiate a better deal for the business.
So why are we questioning management's judgment here? Is Carnegie Hall closing? Is it losing money? If not, what is the issue here? What's wrong with a business model where the employer feels it is best served by well-paid rank and file?

16 zbicyclist December 27, 2010 at 6:12 am

"Are grad schools the enemy of good scholarship?"

They may be the enemy of good economic decisions by young people.

17 Six Ounces December 27, 2010 at 7:53 am

Why O why when someone says "Group X is a bunch of thieves," there is a knee-jerk reaction to say, "Well Group Y is a bigger buch of thieves! Therefore pay no attention to Group X."

Morgan, I've got to hand it to you. You've swallowed your talking points well.

I don't buy this "quality theater" argument at all. I'll put low budget film up against high priced blockbusters every day. What movie was better, "The Lives of Others" or "Waterworld?"

Yes, every restriction of labor supply is a conspiracy against the consumer, including academia. Most research is crap, and the teaching is worse. Students are paying high tuition for a bad education.

As for the stagehand unions and others like them, where are the Pinkertons when we need them most?

18 robb Lutton December 27, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Tyler,
could you please explain what your concern is? If I am reading the referenced article correctly, these men are not on salary (despite the quote). They are hourly employees that work a frackload of overtime. If you do the math based on say $40/hour which is surely a reasonable mid manhattan rate for an experienced electrician, the numbers you quote are pretty reasonable.

2000 hours at straight time equals 80k

another 2000 hours at time and a half equals 120k. (of course the article mentions double and triple time) So that takes you to 200k before benefits. The article says they average about 275k. Seems logical to me.

So what is your point? $40/hour is too much? They shouldn't get overtime pay? They shouldn't work so much? What?

This just seems like a crazy job, not a union scandal.

19 Bill December 29, 2010 at 4:05 am

I've played at Carnegie Hall on several occasions, as well as other classical gigs that involve union stagehands, and I can assure you that what these guys do is move pianos and set up music stands. And hang out backstage acting surly unless you treat them nicely. I have watched several of the most celebrated classical soloists kiss the rings of these union hacks, and it is disgraceful.

Looking at these comments, several people assume that the article is holding back some information about the job description of stage hands. Perhaps they leap tall buildings in a single bound. Perhaps they know *just* how to move a chair so it catches the spotlight in such and such a way. Perhaps pianos aren't actually on wheels and require super human strength to carry around the stage. . . They don't. These jobs could literally be performed by monkeys (or out of work actors as some have suggested). And to boot, once the musicians come onstage, we inevitably adjust the chairs and stands ourselves, so that they're where we want them, giving the lie to any supposed expertise in these departments (and we don't get overtime for it either). I have actually played some gigs where even this must be done stealthfully. It is ridiculous.

The Colorado Symphony is not Donald Trump or some other CEO. They are not providing market-based goods and services. They are not moving the economy. They are not even paying taxes. They are (like all orchestras) a 501(c)3 charity that takes more than it gives from a financial point of view and (supposedly) gives back more to the community through its public service. To compare them to "overpaid" CEOs is ridiculous.

I can't say anything regarding carpenters and the like who have marketable expertise and skills and work on Broadway, etc. A full time carpenter in the non-charity sector can do pretty well in New York (that doesn't mean they will), but a half million dollar secured union salary is really quite something. But this article is talking about stage hands- guys whose skill set can be learned in about 45 seconds. The disbelief in some of the comments, or the notion that somehow the article is hiding some information about how special these guys really are, illustrates why these salaries are so outrageous.

20 Master of None December 29, 2010 at 9:37 am

I think the biggest (safest) takeaway is simply that this type of entertainment is largely unsustainable, if this is what it costs (unions or no).

There is too large a supply of cheap/free entertainment for this model (high cost and not scalable) to work in most places.

21 Jeff Ransom January 2, 2011 at 7:21 am

Spaghetti is delicious.

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