The Playgoer: Strike Post-Mortem

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Strike Post-Mortem

Some interesting tidbits trickling out in various post-strike articles I've been catching up with.

First Campbell Robertson sums up pretty credibly what spun it out of control:

After months of negotiations, league officials were genuinely surprised to find
that the union wasn’t giving in on a range of points, even on rules the league
thought were plainly unreasonable.

Unreasonable to who, again?

Again, the League also never recognized how ape-shit a union will go when you say you're going to roll back conditions that have been in the contract for nearly 100 years, and that your organization has renewed again and again.

They also underestimated union solidarity from the actors--who know they're next.
When the strike began, the first on Broadway in the union’s 121-year history,
the league also expected to see fault lines between Local 1 and the other
Broadway unions, but these lines never really materialized. The new director of
Actors’ Equity Association, John P. Connolly, turned out to be a stalwart
defender of Local 1, giving fiery speeches at news conferences.
The League let Connolly know, by the way, what fun he's in for next year, when the AEA contract comes up for renewal.
In an open letter to the actors’ union during the strike, league officials said, “Before the recent vitriol aimed at us by Equity, we had no expectation that next summer’s production contract negotiation would be difficult in any respect.”

Meanwhile, the Sun's Kate Taylor takes up the question of, why doesn't this happen over in London? Turns out they have an interesting solution over there:
[E]ach West End theater is required to permanently employ at least four stagehands. They then hire additional stagehands for the load-in and run of a show....

On the other hand, once a Broadway show closes, all the stagehands working on it are immediately unemployed.

Perhaps this sensible alternative model came out of more fruitful, creative, and respectful labor negotiations.

Oh, and one other factor:
A spokesman for Local One, the Broadway stagehands' union, Bruce Cohen, noted that the British unions and their employers also don't have to negotiate about health care, since Britain has national health care.
Oh, what problems would "evil socialized medicine" not solve!

Finally some "final thoughts" of my own:

- Note how easily so many assumed that because a stagehand might not be fully put to use on one day of a load-in that therefore he must be earning six figures a year doing nothing. I sincerely doubt, need I say, that is the case with anyone. Yet there it was spread all over the press.

- I think the big picture that's been missed throughout is why the old contract allowed for so much so-called "featherbedding." (In other words, let's not assume along with Charlotte St. Martin that her predecessors at the League of American Theatres and Producers were either labor-loving pinkos or crack-addicted incompetents.) My guess is that the old contracts assumed most Broadway shows were big shows and would require big load-ins. Hence, in the days when Broadway meant big, you didn't hear as many "featherbedding" complaints since...they actually used all those stagehands! Now the shows have progressively shrunk in every way (Bronx Tale anyone?) but the contract remained the same.

The League is right that the rising economic costs of real estate, marketing, and other union demands, make profit more difficult on the old super-size budgets. And indeed, despite their claims the stagehands were doing nothing to compromise, these negotiations have ended up acknowledging the changing landscape and giving them more flexibility. But if they're asking unions to adjust to a much smaller Broadway, it's only fair to provide a much more gradual transition for the average day-laborers and their families. Instead of just all at once downsizing them.

-I believe I heard someone on say on NY1's On Stage this past weekend that while the old contract did not mandate load-in minimums for non-musical plays, the new contract--as a concession--does! I don't know about you, but what I take out of that is the news that you can't blame the stagehand union for keeping serious drama away from Broadway. That's not what this was about. In fact, the League seemed content to give that away as a bargaining chip. Why? Because they don't plan on producing any more plays.

Seriously folks, what it really means is today's business savvy producer is relying now on only one formula: the small to midsize musical. Small enough to cut the stagehand costs, but large enough to fill the house. Ol' Wedekind's Spring Awakening may be having all kinds of unintended consequences...

-And finally, here's the number one reason I'm glad there was a strike: to remind people that people who work in the theatre really work. They're not minstrels for our amusement. They're not doing it as a hobby, like community theatre. Whether working on stage or off, this is their livelihood and if we want a theatre in this town (and this country) we better look after it as a profession. Like any other profession.

When auto or transit workers strike, sure there's grumbling and anti-labor rhetoric. But for play-people, I sense a more shocked outrage. How dare these men be picketing on the street instead of enchanting my children, and my aunt from Indiana. The Times ran a letter to the editor that said something like: Good going stagehands, you ruined the restaurant industry. But you know, restaurant workers have unions, too. And we recognize their right to strike. (Don't we?)

I suppose an analagous group of employees not "allowed" to strike are teachers. Indeed, an important civic job. But without the power to strike, are we content to let them be exploited with no leverage?

So as we enter what is promising to be a harball decade for Broadway labor negotiations (as has widely been reported, the League has a long-term, course-resetting agenda here) I hope everyone in the press or in real life who loves the theatre will remember that the people who make those magical nights on stage happen--they're employees. Just like--probably--you.


Anonymous said...

There's a theory out there that whatever number of stagehands you have to add for a few days of load-in on a play will be offset by saving 5 stagehands for the weeks of a musical's load-in.

Anonymous said...

Excellent write-up, Garrett!

Playgoer said...

Oh, and one more point...

From the beginning, one the union's arguments for no concessions without trade-offs was that this is officially a booming business. It should not be forgotten that ALL the theatre unions (stagehands, musicians, actors) have accepted pay cuts and other concessions in the past in dire times, or for special projects. Have producers forgotten how they agreed to temporary pay cuts after 9/11 to help save THEIR industry? Also, who remembers an ill-fated venture called the Broadway Alliance (back in the 80s) when I believe Manny Azenburg and a few other "enlightened" producers arranged all kinds of union and artist concessions to stage a few plays on Broadway at lower expenses. (All in the name of salvaging the straight play on B'way in the age of the MegaMusical.)

Now, the League countered this time that we should ignore all those press releases they keep putting out of "B'way's Boffo-est Season Ever!" and remember that only 1 in 5 shows make their investment back. But given the public perception at least that Broadway is booming, the stagehands were absolutely right to call the League out on their claim that concessions were now necessary. I'm sure if the Broadway Industry were in more measurable decline, there would have been an easier time talking them into concessions.

Anonymous said...

You banged the Nail right on the head!
The only time Ive ever had Idle time on a load in was due to poor management planning,
Show decks that didnt fit right.
Late trucks, scenery still being built.late.
bad design measurements.
The most shows I work my ass off!

This Strike never had to happen,If they dealt with us like gentelmen.
Insteed they tryed to bullie bluff and push us into a fight.
They got one!
the leagues numbers never added up'
a;; our unions pulled together/
our Unions added up to "ONE"
Now Equity,802 Have some very good friends.