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English National Opera chorus threatens to strike over ‘brutal’ pay cuts

English National Opera chorus members. Photo: Stephano Cagnoni English National Opera chorus members. Photo: Stephano Cagnoni
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Chorus members from English National Opera are poised for strike action over a proposed 25% cut to their pay.

They are being backed by union Equity, which said the cut amounted to “cultural vandalism” and warned that the reduction – alongside plans to make four of the 44-strong chorus redundant – would leave many of its members in financial difficulty.

The proposal to cut their pay has been labelled “stupid, brutal and plain wrong” by director Simon McBurney, whose production of The Magic Flute is currently running at ENO.

Equity has called for the chorus to be retained in full, and on full pay, warning that an industrial ballot has been launched, which could result in strike action.

Assistant general secretary Stephen Spence said: “We have not yet decided what we will do and are hopeful discussions will resolve this. But we are not ruling anything out.”

He claimed that a permanent chorus on “part-time pay” was unsustainable and added: “We have to be careful cultural vandalism is not committed while trying to balance the books.”

Equity official Hilary Hadley explained that a chorus member earns £32,900 a year. Although ENO is proposing to reduce this by 25%, she said that a chorus member would earn around 61% of their salary when other factors are taken into account.

As well as the 25% cut, Equity said ENO wanted to increase the number of hours chorus members can work and change the way overtime is calculated. It claimed ENO would also remove payments for working on Sundays.

“Equity understands the need to make savings and is committed to working with ENO to achieve substantial savings, but we are not prepared to cross the line between making some savings and destroying the integrity of the chorus,” Hadley said, adding: “You can’t retain a world-class chorus when you pay them 62% of their salary.”

Plans for industrial action were announced by Equity at a press conference, where the chorus members performed.

One chorus member, who has worked for ENO for 15 years but could not be named, told The Stage the cut to pay would have a “devastating effect”.

“I would not be able to carry on in the chorus. I have a family to feed and mortgage to pay so there is just no way, living in London, I would be able to carry on working here,” he said. “Above that, it would be devastating for the four choristers forced to leave, and above that it deprives the audience the chance to see a world-class ensemble.”

The chorus member also said the new management team that had come in last year had initially made a “lot of noise about wanting to be consultative”.

“Unfortunately we were one morning presented with these proposals and at no stage given an invitation to meet with management and talk about how the savings that we know need to be made could be made. We were just slapped with these devastating proposals,” he said.

A petition has been launched urging ENO to reconsider its plans, which has so far been supported by more than 3,000 people.

McBurney said on Twitter:

Responding in a blog on ENO’s website today, chief executive Cressida Pollock said ENO had always “ploughed every last penny into the creation of extraordinary opera”.

“With such huge changes being made to our programming and the way we perform at the London Coliseum, it is inevitable that we have to review the contracts with our chorus, orchestra and backstage staff,” she said.

Pollock added: “It is not our intention to further casualise the workforce at ENO. We remain committed to retaining a permanent chorus, orchestra and backstage team.”

A spokeswoman for ACE said it was the responsibility of ENO and its board to “continue to develop its business plan and to implement necessary change in order to manage the organisation’s operating model”.

“We firmly believe that the organisation can continue to create excellent work, extend its audiences and do so in a way that gets best value for the taxpayer,” she said.

In 2007, strike action at the venue was avoided after a number of voluntary redundancies were agreed.

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