Stopping the show, &c.

An inflatable rat accompanied strikers outside Carnegie Hall on opening night.


Last week, I began a column as follows: “The other day, I was ranting about something in a podcast with Mona Charen. (Nothing new there.) Let me give the same rant, slightly cooler.” You know, I’m going to do the same thing today. (Different rant.)

I’ve always wanted to be pro-union, I swear. (I’m talking about labor unions.) I’ve always wanted to support oppressed workers, trying to get a better deal from the Man. But, in my time and place, union members have behaved abominably. And my sympathies are generally with management.

I don’t like that this is so. But I feel I can’t help it (again, given my time and place). The Harlan County coalminers were a long time ago.

Did you hear about Carnegie Hall’s opening night? There wasn’t one. That’s because a group of wealthy stagehands decided that Opening Night would not take place.

Everyone was ready: the Philadelphia Orchestra, the conductor, the soloists, the ticket-buyers . . . Thousands of people were ready for Opening Night, but, hours before, the stagehands decided to cancel it. They struck. So Opening Night could not go forward.

These stagehands are incredibly lucky. The chief one makes 530 grand a year. His colleagues all make more than 400. We’re not talkin’ horny-handed sons of toil.

But, upset that some of their demands had not been met, they were able to cancel Opening Night. This is worse than the tail wagging the dog; it’s the tail banishing the dog from the house, or something. There are millions of unemployed people in this country, and I’m sure that many of them would be happy to set out chairs and music stands — probably for less than $400K a year. Some of them might even stoop to doing it for 295.

All of my life, I’ve seen movies in which businessmen are nastily greedy. In real life, union members can give these guys a run for their money, or surpass them.

People wonder why tickets to concerts and operas are so expensive, or why studio recordings aren’t being made anymore, or why there are fewer orchestra broadcasts and the like. Think union.

All God’s chillen got anecdotes, and I’m going to give you three. One night, I attended a concert in Zankel Hall (a venue in the Carnegie building). The executive director of the relevant concert series was onstage, welcoming her patrons. Someone yelled out, “Susan, use a microphone!” She responded that she was saving the organization $2,500 by not using a microphone — that’s what the union would have bilked them for.

Story No. 2: One night, I was in Avery Fisher Hall, sitting next to a Lincoln Center official. This was an orchestra program, and there was vocal music on it. I said to the official, “Why aren’t you using supertitles?” (As you know, these are words flashed on a screen above the stage. I had seen them used in Avery Fisher before.) The official said, “Because that’s a plug-in, and we can’t afford it.” I said, “What’s a plug-in?” She said, “A union member has to come to the hall and plug the device in.”

Last one: James Levine was giving a master class in Zankel Hall (I believe). He was coaching a young singer and a young pianist. At some point, he asked the pianist to lower the lid on the piano. As the young man moved to do it, a stagehand rushed from the wings, as though in a panic — and stepped in front of the young man to lower the lid.

Levine smiled at the pianist, wagged his finger, and said, “Not union.”

Let me go back to Carnegie Hall’s opening night, or non-opening night: You and I may say, “Shame on the union.” But what we should really say is, “Shame on us.” Shame on us — society in general — for allowing this sort of thing to happen. How did we get this way? How did we reach the point where a few guys can cancel Opening Night for thousands?

Why can’t we say to them, “Sorry you’re upset, sorry you aren’t willing to work tonight. But guess what? We’re going to do this thing. We’re going to have Opening Night with or without you”? I guess we just can’t. But I have trouble understanding why.