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ENO chorus votes to strike in pay dispute

English National Opera chorus members singing outside the offices of Arts Council England. Photo: Marcus Clarkson English National Opera chorus members singing outside the offices of Arts Council England. Photo: Marcus Clarkson
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Chorus members at English National Opera will strike for the first time in 13 years in response to proposed changes to their contracts.

In a ballot by Equity over the issue, 42 papers were returned, all of which voted in favour both of striking and of protest action short of a strike.

It comes after ENO proposed that the 44-strong ensemble would be permanent only between September and May, reducing members’ contracted time by 25%, which would be reflected in a pay cut.

ENO bosses confirmed today that this action would come into force in August 2017. They said they were “disappointed” by the chorus’ decision to strike.

Four members of the chorus will also be made redundant from August this year as part of the plans.

At an event outside Arts Council England’s offices in central London, Equity’s head of live performance, Hilary Hadley, announced that the chorus will undertake industrial action next month, from March 4 to 19. This will include protest, and singers may not agree to work overtime.

Chorus members will also strike on March 18, and will not sing during the final performance of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten.

The ensemble will not perform during Act I of the four-act opera, in what they say is a reflection of the 25% cut proposed by ENO management.

Hadley described the action as a “symbol of our [Equity’s] seriousness and a sign of the desperation of the chorus”.

She said: “The chorus has no interest in causing economic harm to their company, which is why the overwhelming majority of industrial action will be action short of a strike.”

She added: “They have deliberately chosen to make this as minimal as possible by giving notice that the strike will occur on the last performance of Akhnaten and only in Act I. Additionally, the chorus have deliberately chosen the last performance in the hope that this gives time for negotiations.”

Equity president Malcolm Sinclair also led a delegation of the chorus to hand a letter to ACE chief executive Darren Henley, setting out their case for a full-time opera company on full pay.

ENO’s chorus last went on strike in 2003. Industrial action was subsequently avoided at the company in 2007, after around 45 members of staff took voluntary redundancy.

One chorus member, who cannot be named, told The Stage he felt the importance of a full-time, permanent chorus was being ignored by ENO management.

“This [the pay cut] would have a huge impact. Really it would not be a permanent job anymore because people will only come for a couple of years and that will have an impact on the artistic output of the chorus. The homogenous sound that you build up over years will be lost,” he said.

“What we take issue with is being singled out for disproportionate cuts. It is not the same for other departments,” he added.

Last week, singers from the Royal Opera wrote a letter to ENO bosses criticising the “extreme” and “irreversible” plans, which they said were financially unviable in the long term.

In response to the announcement of strike action, a statement from ENO management said: “We are extremely disappointed that Equity have balloted members of the ENO chorus, and they have decided to proceed with industrial action – including a strike – before undertaking serious negotiations.

“Given the assurance that no action would be taken which would damage the company, we are saddened that the action that they have chosen seems specifically designed to cause the utmost harm to both the company and our audience.”

ENO added that it was “confident” that it could reach an agreement with Equity and that the two organisations could work together to find a solution.

“We cannot place the future of ENO, one of the UK’s greatest cultural assets, at risk of closure. Any strike action undertaken would significantly undermine the work of all members of the ENO family. We are committed to finding a solution with Equity and chorus representatives that protects our permanent artistic forces yet meets the cost savings required, given the 30% cut to our core ACE grant,” the statement said.

Read ENO management’s response in full.

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