Labor pain on B'way, too

Stagehands strike shuts down most N.Y. theaters

After three months of intense and at times acrimonious contract negotiations with theater owners and producers, the stagehands union launched its first-ever strike against Broadway on Saturday, shuttering 27 plays and musicals and delivering another blow to an entertainment industry already wracked by the WGA strike.

Labor unrest now stretches from Hollywood to Broadway, and like the work stoppage that is grinding television and film production to a halt, this one shows little sign of ending soon.

James J. Claffey Jr., president of Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, ended his protracted public silence Sunday at a news conference and indicated that he is in no hurry to return to the bargaining table after the League of American Theatres and Producers repeatedly characterized his members as overpaid and underworked.

"We're not going to apologize for the talent we bring to the table," said Claffey, whose members are the highest-paid labor group on Broadway. "We're fighting for the middle class." He added that the cost of Local One labor represents only 8% of a ticket price, and that even if his union were to concede to the league on every issue, ticket prices would not go down and members of other unions would not be given raises.

The league wants to change long-standing work rules that require it to hire a fixed number of stagehands for a set amount of time regardless of the amount of work that needs to be done. Owners and producers contend that many get paid for doing little or no work. Charlotte St. Martin, the league's executive director, said in a news release Sunday that the average stagehand earns $150,000 a year in wages and benefits.

"They are professionals and should be well paid, and will remain the best paid in this industry," she added. "We simply don't want to be compelled to hire more workers than needed and pay them when there is no work for them to do."

As in Hollywood, the other Broadway unions are supporting Local One and not crossing picket lines. John Connolly, executive director of Actors' Equity Assn. and a former president of AFTRA, and Bill Dennison, recording vp of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, stood on the dais at the news conference Sunday with Claffey at St. Malachy's Church in Manhattan. Connolly brought the crowd to its feet when he said, "In all that talk about how much stagehands make, not once ... did those producers tell you how much they make."

The league reported earning $939 million at the boxoffice during the 2006-07 season and has set boxoffice records in three of the past four seasons. It also makes money from merchandising, rights sales and other revenue streams but does not report that income.

Local One has a $5.2 million strike fund, and Claffey said it is available to all of the Broadway unions. The league also has a strike fund that it has built up for the past three years with ticket surcharges. According to news reports, the fund totals about $20 million.

Eight Broadway houses that operate outside of the league's purview remain open. Four are run by nonprofit companies -- American Airlines Theatre and Studio 54 (Roundabout), the Biltmore (Manhattan Theatre Club) and the Vivian Beaumont (Lincoln Center Theater) -- while Circle in the Square, Helen Hayes and Hilton are independently run and Disney runs New Amsterdam.

The Nederlander Organization, which runs nine theaters, also has a contract that is independent of the league. However, it notified Local One last month that its members would be locked out if they struck, and they have been. In all, 27 of 39 Broadway houses that had shows running are closed until further notice.

Talks between Local One and the league broke off Nov. 8. With no new talks scheduled and IATSE president Thomas C. Short giving strike authorization to Local One, it was only a matter of time before the stagehands walked off the job. That they did so before the Broadway workweek officially ended Sunday evening, however, caught the theater community by surprise, especially the league.

Members of Local One showed up at the St. James Theatre at 10 a.m. EST Saturday to begin picketing "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," the first show to be affected by the work stoppage because of its 11 a.m. starting time. Soon the block of West 44th Street between Broadway and Eighth, which has four theaters, was choked by pickets, police and members of the media. Among the shows shut down on the block were "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables," Broadway stalwarts that have run for more than 15,000 performances combined.

"Grinch" producer James Sanna appeared calm but was clearly concerned about a long-term work stoppage. "I don't know if we can survive," he said. "It's a holiday family show with a limited run."

When asked what he thought of the league's position about changing the work rules, Sanna declined comment. However, he added, "Philosophically, I agree with them. People who aren't working shouldn't get paid."

Rusty Ross, the actor who plays Young Max in "Grinch," said, "I can't comment on how hard (the stagehands) work all the time, but in the time that I've been in the theater, I see everyone working hard."

The strike is the first on Broadway since 2003, when Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians walked off the job for four days. Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped broker a deal then and last month offered his services again but has been rebuffed by Claffey. Last week during his weekly radio show on WABC, Bloomberg seemed less eager to get into the fray, at least for now.

"These are private companies and private employees with their own union, and they should negotiate," the mayor said.

It is hard to imagine, however, that Bloomberg or other city officials will stay out of the issue if the strike goes longer than a few days. According to a league news release, New York would lose $17 million a day. Broadway is poised to earn $1 billion in boxoffice revenue alone this year, and the Main Stem helps to pump about $5 billion annually into the city economy.

"I feel bad that sensible heads haven't prevailed," said Max Klimavicius, owner of Sardi's restaurant, which serves as the unofficial home office of the Great White Way. "Everybody else is affected. New York without Broadway is not New York."