Thursday, September 27, 2007
Broadway could go dark next week
The Great White Way could go dark Monday, October 1, if the League of American Theaters and Producers carries out its threats to the stagehands union. One producer I know thinks there is a 50-50 chance that rather than a settlement being reached, the owners will shut down their shows and try to force the union's hand.
Each side has a kitty to help them through this battle. The producers have $20 million, and the union has much less, just $4 million stashed away. But the disparity in funds is not as lopsided as it appears. The unions have only 2,100 members, of which only 350 to 500 are working on Broadway at any given time. The League's members need huge amounts to keep borderline shows from closing. Its funds will disappear at a much faster rate.
The battle is the usual business vs. workers contratemps. The Producers want work rules changed, like being able to hire stagehands for a day or two during the "load-in" of a show. The union wants a level to be maintained for the whole load in period whcih can take a week or more, regardless of whether the stagehands are needed for the whole period. There are other issues, too.
Stagehands earn between $1,200 to more than $1,600 a week on average, but with overtime and premium rates, it is not unusual for a stagehand to take home more than $100,000 a year.
There hasn't been a strike on Broadway for four years, since the musicians struck, and it is surprising there are not more considering that there are more unions in a theater than on a typical construction site.
The union isn't saying anything to the reporters, but back in July, James J. Claffey, the president of Local One, said the union would not change work rules without getting something in return. On the other side, the League sent out e-mails warning the theater owners and producers not to speak to the media about the negotiations.
It is important to note that we are talking about a "lockout" here, not a "strike" since it would be the producers, not the stagehands, who would dim the lights. October is a slower month than the holidays when business booms. Even so, seven shows are scheduled to begin previews next month. One, “Young Frankenstein,” is playing in a nonleague theater, and would probably open no matter what. Likewise, Disney’s New Amsterdam theater and the four nonprofit Broadway theaters would not be included in a lockout.
But oldtimers like me are willing to bet there is lots of activity behind the scenes. How likely is it that Mayor Bloomberg is going to let an industry that generates almost $1 billion a year for the city to close down. Without shows, there is no audience and that means no business for restaurants, hotels, ticket brokers and parking lots.
Word of this pending strike has been limited as the industry has tried to keep a lid on the pending disaster, Nobody wants ticket sales to stop, hotel reservations to be cancelled, and tourism to drop during a peak time of year.
Negotiations are still going on, but it is late in the third act. Here's hoping there is a happy ending!
UPDATE AS OF OCT. 2:
The parties have agreed to extend the deadline in order to continue negotiations today, and on Thursday of this week. It is generally agreed that if a strike were called, it wouldn't be until November, but that if talks broke down, the producers might call for an immediate lockout to force the issue before the lucrative high season.