Stagehands talking turkey

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Negotiations between striking Broadway stagehands and theatre owners and producers continued into their second day Sunday without any discernible progress. The two sides resumed talks on a new contract Saturday, the first time they had talked since walking away from the table Nov. 8.

Spokespeople for Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the League of American Theatres and Producers are not commenting during the talks. On Friday, the day before the talks resumed, the mood from both sides was cautiously optimistic, because everyone wanted to get back to work in time for the week of Thanksgiving, the second-most lucrative of the Broadway season. (The top grossing week is usually the one between Christmas and New Year's Day.)

Hope for a relatively quick settlement was also spurred by the addition of Robert Johnson, a prominent labor attorney who works for Disney, which has three shows on Broadway ("The Lion King," "Mary Poppins" and "The Little Mermaid"). Although Disney is not part of the league, and "Mary Poppins" remains open, its other two shows have stopped because they are housed in theatres owned by the Nederlander Organization, which locked out Local One members when they struck. The league trusts Disney because it helped to revive the Times Square area in the mid-1990s; it also has a good reputation among unions, particularly with Local One's parent, IATSE, whose president, Thomas C. Short, also joined the negotiations.

Along the picket lines, the mood has remained one of grim determination since the strike began nine days ago, though the level of optimism for a quick resolution did vary a bit -- from pessimistic to noncommittal. "It's pretty negative," said a line captain leading a picket at a theater on West 44th Street who refused to give his name. "They aren't getting anywhere."

Asked if the "they" meant the negotiators in general or theatre owners in particular, he said, "The 'they' is them, the producers. If I was talking about us, I'd say 'us.' "

"As long as they're still talking, that's a good thing," another captain said. Rank-and-file members are not authorized to speak to the media.

"I didn't think things would get this far," a third captain said. "We've never struck in 121 years. We don't want to be here, they don't want us to be here. All of us just want to get back to work."

According to a report on New York 1, a local cable news station, a principal sticking point remains the minimum number of stagehands the owners and producers are required to hire for load-ins, the period when a show's set is first installed and constructed. That would fit into the general pattern of demands for each side: The league wants greater flexibility to hire only those workers it believe it needs, while Local One wants to protect the number of jobs.

There are roughly 350-500 stagehands who work at Broadway's 39 theatres, though Local One's ranks shrank by one Friday night, when Frank Lavaia, 57, died of a heart attack while walking the picket line outside the Minskoff Theatre, where "Lion King" is housed.

Since the strike, 27 shows have been shuttered, and several could close for good if the two sides don't reach a settlement soon. Neither side indicated if the talks had broken off or if they would resume today.

Andrew Salomon is news editor at Back Stage East.
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