Stagehands strike gets go-ahead

Most Broadway shows would go dark

Broadway productions went into the weekend taking it one show at a time, with the stagehands’ union looking poised to call a strike that would shut down more than 25 Rialto shows.

The union, Local One, posted an update on its website Thursday night alerting members it had received authorization to strike from Thomas C. Short, the international prexy of blanket union IATSE. Short was present for two sessions of contract bargaining with the trade association of Rialto producers, the League of American Theaters and Producers.

Following the strike go-ahead granted by union members last month, authorization from IATSE is the final internal step that allows Local One, topped by prexy James J. Claffey, to call a strike.

No timeline for a work stoppage has yet been announced. “The International President will advise President Claffey as to the time and date when the strike will begin,” the union website reads.

Claffey has previously told members that a strike would most likely be timed for December, thereby hitting producers during the holidays, traditionally the Rialto’s most lucrative frame.

That schedule could always be pushed up — although union officials remain wary of alienating theatergoers by striking without at least a few days’ warning.

A rep for Local One had no comment.

The League has not yet received official notification of the strike authorization. In the meantime, the org has mobilized to assuage consumer concerns.

“If you have tickets, keep your plans and come to the Great White Way,” said League prexy Charlotte St. Martin in a statement. “In the event a strike is called, please be assured that all affected ticket holders can receive an exchange or full refund.”

Producers and stagehands have been wrangling over a new labor agreement for several weeks, with stagehands working without a contract since the prior agreement expired in July.

Negotiations hit an impasse Oct. 9, when both sides presented last, best offers that were rejected. Producers began to implement new work rules without the union’s consent Oct. 21.

Talks did not pick up again until Nov. 7, in a long session that began at 10 a.m. and lasted into the early morning hours Nov. 8. Strike authorization came after a daylong session Nov. 8 that broke off at about 7 p.m., with the two sides said to be far apart on central issues.

A third negotiation session, tentatively planned for Nov. 9, was scuttled.

At issue in the talks are contractual employment obligations, particularly the hiring requirements for the process of loading a production into a Broadway theater. Producers want to establish flexibility on rules — for instance, the obligation to hire a fly operator even for productions that have no flies — that they see as outdated and overly costly. Stagehands, meanwhile, refuse to give up what they see as hard-earned protections of their livelihood without receiving other benefits in exchange.

The last Broadway shutdown came in 2003, when the musicians’ union called a strike that darkened the Rialto for four days at an estimated box office loss of about $5 million.

Since about that time, the League has amassed a support fund of about $20 million to help sustain shows during a shutdown.

Local One has its own stockpile of about $4 million, plus $1 million to assist other unions affected by a work stoppage.

In the event of a shutdown, the union also has counted on being able to provide employment to its striking Rialto members with jobs in other media — although with the WGA strike halting many Gotham-based productions, parts of that strategy now appear to be jeopardized.

Most but not all Broadway theaters would be affected by a strike. Houses operated by nonprofit orgs — Manhattan Theater Club’s Biltmore (“Mauritius”), Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont (“Cymbeline”), and the Roundabout’s American Airlines (“Pygmalion”) and Studio 54 (“The Ritz”) — have separate agreements with the stagehands union, as do commercial houses the Hilton (“Young Frankenstein”), the Helen Hayes (“Xanadu”), the New Amsterdam (“Mary Poppins”) and Circle in the Square (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”).

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