First Strike in 40 Years: Unravelling the English National Opera Musicians’ Dispute

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In a surprising turn of events, the English National Opera (ENO) is facing its first strike in 40 years, as tensions between the management and the orchestra members have reached a boiling point. This unexpected development raises questions about the underlying issues causing the dispute and the potential implications for one of the UK’s leading opera companies.

The arguments

At the heart of the matter lies the financial struggles faced by the English National Opera musicians. Reports suggest that musicians are pushing for improved pay and working conditions to reflect their dedication and talent.

Members of the orchestra and music staff are urging management to ensure, among other requests, a seven-month contract, priority consideration for opportunities outside London, and fair compensation for music staff.

The Musicians’ Union (MU) and Equity expressed concern that proposals to eliminate 19 orchestra positions and transition other staff members to part-time roles could destroy the livelihoods of musicians.

“This is a sign of extremely difficult times for the orchestral sector and opera and ballet in particular. This has been caused by underfunding of the proposed move to Manchester,” Naomi Pohl, the union’s general secretary said.

Last year, Arts Council England (ACE) removed ENO from its national portfolio, resulting in the loss of its £12.8 million annual grant. ENO was instructed to relocate outside London to be eligible for future grants. In the preceding month, the company revealed that it had selected Greater Manchester as its forthcoming location.

“The management has decided to cut our members down to six months of work per year and this risks a wonderful, talented and specialist orchestra dissipating. It is heartbreaking to see the impact on the individuals affected,” Pohl said in response to ACE’s decision.

The union further stated that, with the cessation of live performances during the pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living challenges, numerous musicians are facing difficulties in sustaining themselves.

“It is unclear how ENO management expects people in the ENO orchestra to survive on six months’ work a year or sustain careers over the remaining six months,” adds MU National Organiser for Orchestras, Jo Laverty.

The facts

Musicians at the English National Opera will be striking on February 1, 2024. The demands for improved working conditions go beyond monetary compensation. Musicians are advocating for a healthier work-life balance, adequate rehearsal time, and a more supportive environment that fosters creativity. Balancing the rigorous demands of live performances with fair treatment has become a focal point of the dispute.

The strike was announced following the resignation of ENO’s music director, Martyn Brabbins, in October. His departure was driven by apprehensions about the organization’s intentions to reduce orchestral positions and transition the remaining performers to part-time contracts, which he perceived as indicative of a “managed decline.”

Should the strikes proceed it will mark the first walkout since a demonstration against proposed BBC cuts in 1980.

The English National Opera musicians’ strike is a complex issue with roots in the financial, artistic, and structural aspects of the opera company. As negotiations unfold, finding a balanced solution that addresses the concerns of both parties will be essential to ensuring the longevity and success of the ENO.

The resolution of this dispute will not only impact the immediate future of the English National Opera but may also set a precedent for labour relations within the broader performing arts sector.

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