Broadway readies for possible strike

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Broadway took a significant step toward its first work stoppage in four years when talks between the stagehands union and theater owners broke off after particularly acrimonious discussions Thursday.

IATSE president Thomas Short gave the New York chapter the authority to strike, then flew to Los Angeles to deal with the fallout from the Hollywood writers strike.

There was no immediate word when a strike would start if there was one, but it likely would begin sometime after Sunday's performances. All Broadway theaters would close except for those managed by nonprofit companies -- American Airlines and Studio 54 (Roundabout Theatre Company), Biltmore (Manhattan Theatre Club) and Vivian Beaumont (Lincoln Center Theater) -- and those that operate outside the purview of the League of American Theatres and Producers: Circle in the Square, Hilton, Helen Hayes and the Disney-owned New Amsterdam.

Although theaters owned by the Nederlanders are not governed by this contract, a company official notified the stagehands last month that they would barred from working if their union, Local One, went on strike.

The stagehands have been working without a contract since the present one expired July 31. In mid-October, the league declared an impasse after negotiations broke down and then unilaterally implemented portions of its final offer to Local One. Stagehands have been working under the new rules, but rank-and-file members gave negotiators strike authorization Oct. 21, and it was likely a work stoppage would ensue if the two sides could not reach an agreement when talks restarted earlier this week.

"While we understand that Local One, the stagehands union, has received strike authorization from IATSE, we have not received notice of any proposed strike date," said Charlotte St. Martin, the league's executive director. "We remain prepared to resume talks and continue negotiations."

Bruce Cohen, spokesman for Local One, had no comment.

The league has sought greater flexibility in the work rules that govern stagehands, and it contends that there are too many jobs required for not enough work. Stagehands are, on average, the highest-paid employees on Broadway; theater owners and producers have said they want to reduce costs in a business where only one in five shows recoups its initial investment.

However, Broadway has set boxoffice records three out of the past four years and is poised to have its first-ever billion-dollar season. Further, owners and producers make money beyond the boxoffice from merchandising, the sale of secondary and film rights and other sources.

Broadway shut down for four days in early 2003 when Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians went on strike. Actors' Equity Assn. and Local One refused to cross the picket line, and the league and musicians reached a deal that was brokered with help from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg also has offered to help with the current impasse but has been rebuffed by Local One president James Claffey Jr. Broadway contributes, directly and indirectly, about $5 billion to the city economy every year, and a strike during the holiday season would be particularly damaging.

Andrew Salomon is news editor at Back Stage East.
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