B'way talks resume, not shows

Stagehands, producers meet late into the night

Broadway theater owners and producers and striking stagehands talked late into Sunday night and gave no indication of whether the work stoppage that has crippled the Main Stem for the past 16 days will end soon or continue to eat away at the traditionally fat holiday season.

The strike, which began Nov. 8, has shuttered about 25 productions and cost Broadway and the New York economy anywhere from $2 million-$17 million a day, according to city and industry estimates. It has been particularly harmful to such ancillary theater-district businesses as restaurants, cab drivers and parking garages. It has also hurt the pocketbooks of actors, musicians, ushers and other theater employees whose unions have refused to cross the stagehands' picket lines.

The principals in the dispute — representatives for the League of American Theatres and Producers and Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — returned to the bargaining table one week after negotiations broke down Nov. 18. Two days of marathon sessions were monitored by two people who many in the theater industry thought could broker a deal: Robert Johnson, Disney's chief labor negotiator, and Thomas Short, president of Local One's parent union. However, stagehands spokesman Bruce Cohen said the two did not attend the talks, which are being led by Bernard Plum, the league's chief negotiator, and James Claffey Jr., president of Local One.

Disney, which has three shows on Broadway, is not part of the league but is well-liked by management officials for its efforts to restore Times Square. It also has a good relationship with IATSE. And, according to a union source, Short has a good working relationship with Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Theatres and perhaps the most prominent member of the league.

According to a theater industry source, Johnson, Short and the league were close to a deal eight days ago, but it was rejected by Local One's negotiating committee. Several news reports — including those by the New York Post and the New York Times — indicated the deal was singularly vetoed by Claffey, but the source said the committee, which has about two dozen members, unanimously voted it down, and Claffey carried out its wishes.

Local One's contract expired July 31, and three and a half months of sometimes heated negotiations followed. After talks in early October broke down, the league declared an impasse and unilaterally imposed some new rules on Oct. 19. Nevertheless, Local One officials didn't call a strike until another round of negotiations collapsed in early November.

After the talks broke down last week, league executive director Charlotte St. Martin said all performances for the 27 shows closed by the strike would be canceled for Thanksgiving week, usually the second-most lucrative of the Broadway season. (The first is the week between Christmas and New Year's.) St. Martin said the league took such a drastic action because it wanted to be fair to theatergoers who may have been planning to come from out of town. However, the move also seemed to indicate the resolve of the league, which has braced for this fight for several years by amassing a $20 million strike fund.

For its part, the union has an equal measure of resolve, though a disparate strike fund — one totaling $5.2 million, some of which is being shared with other unions affected by the strike. However, the union relented on one front last week, when it removed the picket line in front of the St. James Theatre, where "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" is playing. Producers of that show, led by James Sanna, have a deal with Local One that is separate from the league.

Local One acquiesced in part because "Grinch" is a seasonal holiday show that cannot make up for lost shows in February (or whenever the strike may end). However, the owners of the St. James, league member Jujamcyn Theatres, refused to let the show restart until Local One ended its strike.

Sanna then sought an injunction in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, which was granted Nov. 21. The return of "Grinch" raised the number of shows running on Broadway from eight to nine, staged at theaters run by nonprofits and companies outside the league. But 26 are still dark, with no indication when the lights might be turned back on.

Andrew Salomon is the news editor for Back Stage East.