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Musicians and Music Staff at English National Opera to Go On Strike

Musicians’ Union members will be going on strike for the first time since July 1980.

Published: 17 January 2024 | 1:47 PM Updated: 30 January 2024 | 3:51 PM
ENO in #WeAreENO t-shirts
ENO management first announced plans to axe 19 posts in the orchestra and make the orchestra and music staff part-time in November 2023. Photo: Jonathan Stewart

Musicians in the English National Opera orchestra and music staff will be taking full strike action on 1 February 2024 to coincide with the first night of The Handmaid’s Tale.

They will be joined by Equity members in the ENO Chorus.

This strike action is in response to proposals to make all members of the orchestra, music staff and chorus redundant, and only re-employ them for six months a year. Some musicians in the orchestra have only been offered ad-hoc freelance work.

Stage management, who are represented by Equity, will be affected too. 

A programme of Action Short of Strike will begin on 30 January

MU members in the orchestra and music staff will also be taking Action Short of a Strike beginning on 30 January 2024. 

They will be leafleting the dress rehearsal of The Handmaid’s Tale and calling on audience members to show solidarity with the orchestra and music staff, some of whom could lose up to 70% of their work.

This round of industrial action by the Musicians' Union follows a ballot for potential industrial action in December 2023. 

In that ballot, 93.48% of MU members at ENO voted yes to full strike action and 97.83% voted for Action Short of a Strike. 

A historic moment for the MU

MU General Secretary Naomi Pohl said:

"This is a historic moment for the Musicians’ Union and the UK’s orchestra sector – the first time we’ve been on strike since 1980. 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. 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."

ENO plans threaten musicians' livelihoods, homes and wellbeing

MU Steward at the ENO and violinist Glen Sheldon said: 

"It is very rare for musicians to consider strike action - their whole purpose in life is to bring to the public wonderful music at the highest standard.

"It simply cannot be right for a publicly funded opera company to consider functioning with a half-time orchestra but full-time management.

"The threat to our musicians' livelihoods, homes and wellbeing threatens their very ability to continue in the profession to which they have devoted their lives.

"This in turn threatens the quality and world-class standing of the ENO as a company. ENO is its performers - it must not be allowed to diminish to being just a brand."

Strike action is a last resort

MU National Organiser for Orchestras Jo Laverty said:

"Our members at English National Opera are devastated to be having to consider this level of action but their personal and professional lives are being devastated by these decisions. We know that some members are having to sell their homes and make hugely impactful life decisions without a certain future about their work for ENO.

"To date, there is no guarantee how much work or what type of work there will be for our members at the new base in Manchester. Even the six months of work at the Coliseum is not being offered to every member of the orchestra on an equal basis and is hugely divisive.

"The last thing the MU or its members at ENO want to do is adversely impact ENO’s loyal audiences but at this last resort stage we hope that audiences and musicians stand in solidarity with them to protect our ENO."

Negotiations will continue

Musicians in the orchestra and music staff are calling on management to guarantee: 

  • First refusal on work outside London 
  • Equal choices on new contracts for all orchestral members 
  • Equal total hours available to all 
  • Decent pay for music staff

Negotiations will continue, and we hope that industrial action can be averted through talks with ENO management and a dignified agreement that protects the pay, terms and conditions of our members.

Background to the announcement

ENO management first announced plans to axe 19 posts in the orchestra and make the orchestra and music staff part-time in November 2023.

The announcement followed eight months of vigorous campaigning by the Musicians’ Union, Equity and BECTU to save the organisation after a 100% cut to its National Portfolio funding in November 2022.

Trade union campaigning played a significant role in achieving an improved funding settlement from Arts Council England in July 2023.

In a letter from August 2023, outgoing ENO Chief Executive Stuart Murphy thanked the Musicians’ Union and other relevant unions for their significant role in the campaign to have the ENO’s funding reinstated.

Murphy referred to the unions and management working side by side and praised union members for their conduct during the campaign.

ENO’s plans to axe jobs and go part-time are a result of decreased funding for ENO since 2014, other financial challenges such as inflation and the cost of living crisis, and the instruction to Arts Council England from former Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries to move funding out of London.

The plans had been discussed with Arts Council England prior to being made public.

In December 2023, ENO management announced Manchester as a new base for some performances, wellbeing and learning activities. However, it is unclear how much work will be undertaken there, what this will be in practice, and who will be doing it.

Currently, it is only members of the Musicians’ Union, Equity and BECTU whose employment is being decimated.

The average musician earns just £20,000 a year

This announcement comes at a difficult time for the arts sector with several other major institutions across the country also making cuts to musicians' jobs and pay.

The average musician earns just £20,000, according to our recent Musicians’ Census, the same average pay as a decade ago.

In the meantime, following the closure of live performances during the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis continuing, many musicians are struggling to support themselves. 

It is unclear how ENO management expect people in the ENO orchestra to survive on six months’ work a year or sustain careers over the remaining six months.

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