National opera musicians threaten strike action over low wages

On 13 November 2006, the independent trade union of the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera submitted an application to initiate strike action to the Latvian National Opera Director, the Director of the State Labour Inspectorate and the National Tripartite Cooperation Council. The musicians were lobbying for a substantial wage increase. The Latvian National Opera Orchestra threatened not to participate in scheduled opera and ballet performances in November if their demands were not met.

Background

In January and October 2006, the administration of the Latvian National Opera (Latvijas Nacionala Opera, LNO) increased the wages of several categories of employees, including those of orchestra artists by €71 and €145. Following the increases, the average gross wage of orchestra musicians was €640 a month, compared with the average national wage at this time of around €427.

Despite the wage increases, a crisis subsequently broke out at the LNO. In November 2006, the Latvian National Opera orchestra independent trade union (Latvijas Nacionalas operas orkestra neatkariga arodbiedriba) submitted an application to strike to the LNO Director, Andrejs Zagars, the Director of the State Labour Inspectorate (Valsts Darba inspekcija, VDI), Rita Elce, and the National Tripartite Cooperation Council (Nacionalas trispusejas sadarbibas padome, NTSP) Secretary, Sanita Broka.

Demands of musicians

The orchestra musicians demanded:

  • a wage increase from 1 January 2007, setting a minimum gross wage of €825 and a maximum wage of €1,280;
  • that musicians’ wages be determined taking into account average public sector wages, using a coefficient ratio of 2:1.

If the demands were not met, the LNO orchestra threatened not to take part in concerts scheduled to take place on 22–25 November 2006. Moreover, the union promised that it would consider further strike action. The problem was further exacerbated by the fact that the LNO orchestra had committed to taking part in events during the NATO Summit on 27–29 November 2006.

Negotiations end in deadlock

Talks between the strike applicants and LNO management were held within three days of the application to strike, as required by law. However, the negotiations ended in deadlock, as the LNO administration called on the union to create an arbitration committee as stipulated under the Strike Law, while the orchestra union representatives wanted to discuss their strike demands. Following the orchestra union’s refusal to create an arbitration committee, and interpreting this as a refusal to observe the procedures of the Industrial Disputes Law and the Strike Law, the LNO administration submitted an application to the Riga City Centre District Court (Rigas Centra rajona tiesa) to have the strike application declared illegal. The law stipulates that strike action should be taken as a last resort by employees in the event of failure to reach agreement and conciliation in a collective interest dispute.

The court did not advance the application by the LNO administration, ordering that errors in its application to the court be rectified by 8 December 2006. However, in accordance with the Strike Law, if an injunction has been submitted to a court to have a strike declared illegal before the starting date indicated in the strike application, then the strike may not commence until the court ruling comes into force. For this reason, the protest action could not take place on the dates set by the orchestra and during the NATO summit. Nonetheless, the orchestra and conductor scheduled to perform at the NATO summit concert were changed.

Commentary

The inconsistency that has arisen in Latvia between wages and work quality, and the longstanding low levels of pay for those working in the state-funded cultural sector, are among the main reasons for the LNO Orchestra musicians’ decision to strike. Wages of musicians and other cultural sector workers in Latvia are lower than those in other EU countries; however, because levels of qualifications are high, musicians can easily find work outside Latvia.

Tensions in the cultural sector were also highlighted when the musicians of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra resorted to protest action in June 2006, over what they perceived as an affront to the integrity of their creative work and working conditions (LV0608019I).

Raita Karnite, Institute of Economics, Latvian Academy of Sciences

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