Trade unions at the opera
By Alberto Mingardi
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.
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”.