Neon lights bright again on Broadway


Broadway stagehands ended their 19-day strike late Wednesday night after officials for Local One of IATSE and theater producers agreed to a tentative deal.

The new contract provides an unspecified raise in wages and gives the League of American Theaters and Producers a reduction in the number of stagehands required for load-ins, the period in which a show is first installed and mounted.

"This is a good compromise that serves our industry," said Charlotte St. Martin, the league's executive director. "What's most important is that Broadway's lights will be shining brightly."

St. Martin said that all 26 productions closed by the strike would be performing tonight. Neither St. Martin nor Local One president James Claffey Jr. would provide any specifics of the deal late Wednesday.

League officials contended the long-standing work requirements made Broadway a riskier business proposition than it should be. St. Martin said throughout the protracted negotiations that the work rules played a part in four out of every five shows failing to recoup their investment.

Claffey and the union's 28-member negotiating committee had argued that the rules preserved "well-paying middle-class jobs" and said that they would not agree to restructure the agreement without significant benefits of equal value. Cable news station New York 1 reported Wednesday that theater owners and producers were offering a raise of 3%-3.5%, while the union was seeking 4%-4.5%.

The 3,000-member local will meet to vote on the contract over the next 10 days. If they approve, it will then be sent to the parent union for review.

Reopening will be more of a challenge for some shows than others. For example, a one-man show like Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale" could be remounted with little fuss, but a large musical like "Legally Blonde," with moving pieces of large scenery, might require a day's worth of tech rehearsal or a run-through.

Owen Johnston, the dance captain for "Rent," which has been running for almost a dozen years, said the show could restart immediately. "We have very few new folks in the company," said Johnston. "The newest people started about four to five months ago. We may need a brush-up (a half-hour before curtain) … but otherwise we can hit and run."

The strike began Nov. 8 and the city controller's office has estimated the losses to New York's economy at $2 million a day, while the league has put the figure at $8 million a day.

Before this work stoppage, Local One had never struck Broadway in its 121-year history, owing to the traditional closeness between stagehands and theater owners.

Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization and perhaps the leading figure in the league, has had a good relationship with Thomas Short, president of Local One's parent union, IATSE. However, a younger group of league producers, faced with the rising costs of doing business on the Main Stem, were determined to make substantial changes to the contract for Broadway's most powerful union.

But Local One contended that it shouldn't have to give back money or jobs when the league has set boxoffice records in three out of the past four seasons, particularly when that money is only part of its annual revenue. As a private organization, the league does not have to disclose its financial figures and traditionally does not make known how much it receives from merchandising, the sale of secondary rights and other substantial sources of income.

The league had added a ticket surcharge of a few cents over the past three years and amassed a $20 million strike fund, bracing for what management officials figured would be a long battle.

This was the second strike for Broadway in the past five years, and in both cases the owners and producers pushed hard to reduce the labor force of a union. The musicians agreed to a reduction in minimum staffing in 2003 following a four-day walkout.

In the previous IATSE contract, the league was required to hire a minimum of 22 stagehands for the most elaborate Broadway musicals. A labor source said Wednesday that the number had been reduced to 18.

The Local One strike was the longest on Broadway in more than 30 years. Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians struck for 25 days in 1975.

Andrew Salomon is news editor of Back Stage East.