Monday, November 12, 2007

Broadway Shut Down by Labor Dispute

Posted by Bruce Miller

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Well, it’s happened. Broadway is on strike.

This past Saturday, IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) stunned just about everyone by directing their NYC chapter (Local One) to call a strike for 11 a.m., shutting down most of Broadway. IATSE is the same union whose members handle stagehand responsibilities for the largest venues right here in River City, including the Landmark Theatre and the Carpenter Center. None of Richmond’s independent theatres, including Barksdale and Theatre IV, work under IATSE contracts.

This strike affects Broadway only, and not even all of Broadway. Disney theatres have their own contract with IATSE, as do all of Broadway’s nonprofit venues (Circle in the Square, Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout). Consequently a few Broadway shows are still up and running: Young Frankenstein (which just opened at the Hilton), Mary Poppins, Xanadu, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Mauritius, Pygmalion, The Ritz and Cymbeline. And Off Broadway is also still going strong.

The strike shut down approximately two dozen Broadway theatres that are owned and operated by the members of The League of American Theatres and Producers. The strike began with Saturday’s matinee and will continue until … no one knows when. It was called for 11 a.m. to shut down an early family matinee of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Apparently no one saw the irony.

Local One has never called a strike before. And in late October, they promised to give advance warning before calling a strike now. On Saturday morning they broke that promise. This meant that thousands of tourists who had made their plans weeks in advance showed up in New York on Saturday, checked into their hotels, and then learned at the last moment that the shows they had come to see would not be taking place.

Refunds will be given for previously purchased show tickets, but the considerable transportation and accommodation expenses will have to be eaten by the audience members. And the ability to get last minute tickets to those few Broadway shows that are still running, or to Off Broadway shows, is extremely limited. On Saturday, internet tickets for Young Frankenstein were selling for $1,500—each!

Depending on which side you listen to, the strike is a self-serving folly or a defensible stand for fairness.

The heart of the labor dispute is not the amount of the wages paid to the individual worker, but the number of workers that the union requires the producers to hire. The last contract between The League of American Theatres and Producers (they’re the ones who own the majority of Broadway’s theatres and the strike is targeted at them) and Local One (representing the stagehands) expired in the summer. Since then, the League and Local One have not been able to agree on the number of workers required for load-ins, load-outs, and daily operations of a running show.

The expired contract required the League to hire, in many cases, more union workers than were actually needed to get the job done. The producers call this “featherbedding,” and they refuse to allow any future contract to include provisions that require the hiring of unneeded workers.

Before you agree 100% with this reasonable position, consider the stagehands’ point of view. When Broadway is running at capacity, the producers require approximately 2,500 stagehands to get the jobs done. The union has limited its membership to approximately 3,000 highly skilled workers. It’s a TOUGH union to join, and those who are members have years of experience at what they do.
The problem is that, due to the vagaries of show business, at any average point in time, only 500 or so of the union’s members are employed full time. And that was under the old contract. Shows open and shows close—and those decisions are all made by the producers in their own best financial interests. The “featherbedding” that was written into the previous contract (or, as the union would prefer me to say, the “job security provisions” that were written into the previous contract) simply take one small step toward ensuring that hardworking stagehands have the opportunity to earn a living wage even after the producers have decided to close a show.

I can understand and respect both points of view. Broadway requires the infrastructure provided by the 3,000 stagehands and their union. And it's foolhardy to require something and then refuse to pay for it, one way or another.

Hopefully, this labor dispute will be resolved soon. The ones suffering the most are all the theatre artists who won’t be paid while the strike continues, and all the audience members who will be disappointed by the cancellation of their holiday plans.

Perhaps now is the time for both sides to enter into the arbitration that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has offered, but, thus far, the warring parties have refused. And while that arbitration is going on, why not let the Broadway shows keep running? Let the Grinch who steals Christmas be a fantasy with a happy ending, not an ongoing reality with no end in sight.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

A suggestion, Bruce - Maybe it would be a better use of blog space to include a link to the NYTimes. Looks like that was your main source, including the photos. Those of us who care about the industry are already following the news. Having you "explain" the negotiation seems to add fuel to the "Richmonders don't know anything outside of the local theatre pool" fire. I recommend using links to begin your blogs, then share your opinion to help us get a good discussion going. Keep up the good work. Thanks.

Bruce Miller said...

I've followed your advice. Thanks.

Brad Boinest said...

Clearly you're going to be damned if you do and damned if you don't. I liked your blog entry much better before you "improved" it to suit the tastes of your anonymous critic. If I wanted links, I'd go to Google. What I want is YOUR opinion and analysis. That's why I read the Barksdale blog. And I have absolutely no problem with your using the NY Times as source material. Who better to use for this story. My advice is to do it your way; you're a good writer and frankly I found your piece more compelling and understandable than the articles I read in the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal. You'll never satisfy everyone. Thanks.

Betty Graham Nelson said...

I don't like the links at the beginning of the article. If you have to have links, why not put them at the end. At the beginning, it feels like a wall I have to climb over before reading the thing I came here to read.

Anonymous writes: "Having you 'explain' the negotiation seems to add fuel to the 'Richmonders don't know anything outside of the local theatre pool' fire." What fire is he talking about? There's a firestorm of controversy over the fact that there are Richmonders who don't keep up with the New York Times??

I can't believe that anyone is surprised or cares. Is it really the talk of the internet that many Richmonders don't keep up with Broadway news on a daily basis? Good grief. Someone needs to get a life.

Hip hip hooray for Anonymous that he reads the New York Times. Many of us don't. We can't afford home delivery and we don't like reading newspapers on line. If it hadn't been for you and the Barksdale Blog, I wouldn't have known about the Broadway strike at all. Last I heard, it was still pending.

So, I'm just writing to say that you're doing the right thing to remember that many of us enjoy your blog articles about New York theater, because we don't keep up. There, I've admitted it. I hope Anonymous can stand living in a tent that leaves room for all of us Richmonders who are among the great unwashed.

Jacquie O. said...

My co-worker was in NY last weekend with her hubby and friends. It was their big weekend away and they had tickets to Lion King on Sat night. Needless to say they are not happy! She asked me what was going I just linked her to your blog Bruce. So much easier then me droning on and on!

P.S. The links are a very pretty blue color and therefore only add to overall beauty of your blog! I like them!