Next scene not yet written in Broadway's labor strife

Producers, stagehands play chicken

After weeks of intense negotiating between theater owners and stagehands, Broadway has been bracing for a work stoppage.

On Sunday, for example, musicians were told to take their instruments home because there has been talk that owners would lock out the union if it refused their final offer.

At about 7 p.m. Tuesday, the League of American Theatres and Producers put forth its final proposal. Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stagehand Employees refused it, made a counteroffer that was rejected, and then … nothing.

Even though the serious negotiating has stopped, the shows go on — and as far as Broadway drama goes, this is much more akin to "Waiting for Godot" than "Waiting for Lefty." Meanwhile, a group of people whose livelihoods are connected to a $1 billion-a-year industry is left wondering what's going on.

"I wish I could tell you something, but I got nothing," a source from a Broadway union who is not involved in the negotiations said Thursday. "I just want the whole thing to be over."

Added a longtime labor negotiator sympathetic to the interests of management: "I haven't heard anything. Have you?"

Local One's contract expired at the end of July, but the 350-500 members who install sets and move props have kept working while talks continued. At a meeting two weeks ago, the local received support from other Broadway unions, including Actors' Equity Assn. and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.

The league is looking to reduce costs overall and wants to begin cutting the price of labor from Broadway's best-paid union. It contends that work rules are outdated, that there are too many stagehands for too little work and that the situation no longer is acceptable when four out of five shows fail to recoup their investment.

"The union's final proposal, for example, insists on a flyman on all productions even when there are no fly cues," said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the league. "The cost is $162,733 per year, even if the task is not needed."

Local One points to the fact that the league has set boxoffice records in three out of the past four seasons, so there is no reason for stagehands to give back anything in a time of unprecedented financial success. Further, the boxoffice grosses do not include other sources of revenue, such as merchandising and the licensing of secondary rights.

"The union addressed nearly every item on the producers' list and offered imaginative solutions that met the producers' requests," Local One president James Claffey Jr. said. "Local One is open to exchanges on work rules and other areas but would not make a concessionary agreement of any kind. Local One will not accept cuts."

Because the league is looking to significantly change the work rules, it appears as if it initiated a game of chicken and then blinked. Local One is simply seeking standard increases in wages and benefits, so it can afford to wait. However, a source close to theater owners is disowning talk of a lockout.

"The league hasn't been throwing around the term 'lockout,' " the source said. "The league has always been talking in terms of an agreement."

The situation could change if theater owners were to declare an impasse in negotiations and impose new work rules. That might force Local One to consider a strike, and then things would get trickier: Broadway stagehands can't walk out unless Claffey gets approval from Thomas Short, international president of IATSE. According to several sources familiar with the two men's relationship, they do not get along, and a strike authorization would be far from assured.

"Will Tom use his power or not use his power?" asked the longtime labor negotiator who is sympathetic to management. "Tom is looking for a legacy, and he certainly doesn't want a strike as a legacy."

The union source was skeptical that Short would, in effect, take the league's side if things go that far. "I think that's a lot of talk coming from the league," the source said.

There is always a chance that city officials could get involved. Broadway contributes, directly and indirectly, $5 billion a year to the local economy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped settle the last Broadway work stoppage — a four-day musicians strike in 2003 — and a city official hinted that the same could happen again.

"We hope both sides come together and resolve their differences," spokesman Jason Post said. "The city stands ready to assist if it proves helpful."

Even though official bargaining has stopped, lawyers for each side held informal talks Thursday.

"Local One has nothing to report," union spokesman Bruce Cohen wrote in an e-mail.

"There was a meeting between the league and the union today," league spokeswoman Ilyse Fink said. "I don't have anything to report other than it occurred."

Perhaps today.

Andrew Salomon is the news editor of Back Stage East.