Broadway strike a possibility

Organizations renegotiating work contracts

Hollywood isn’t the only town facing a potential work stoppage.

Broadway also might come to a halt this fall, once talks between the Broadway stagehands’ union, Local One, and the producers’ union, the League of American Theaters and Producers, hit a producers-appointed deadline at the end of the month.

The two orgs have been renegotiating their work contract, which expired at the end of July, since the summer. The process has, by all accounts, been businesslike and civil around the table, but those involved say privately there’s real tension in the air, and a Broadway shutdown — which, like the musicians’ strike of 2003, would shutter the majority of Rialto offerings — remains a real possibility. (Shows staged on Broadway by nonprofits, including Roundabout, Manhattan Theater Club and Lincoln Center Theater, are on a different contract and would not be affected.)

Soon after negotiations between the League and Local One resumed after Labor Day, the League unexpectedly announced it would conclude talks at the end of the month.The deadline is generally understood to mean that the producers’ last and best offer will likely be extended to the union on or before Sunday. If the offer isn’t accepted, the producers seem poised to initiate a lockout sometime in early October –darkening most Rialto productions until an agreement is reached.

The League ultimatum is clearly an attempt to control the timing of a potential shutdown. If the union were to choose the most strategic time to strike, it would make tactical sense to threaten to do so right before the traditionally strong Thanksgiving holiday, or worse, Christmas — Broadway’s most lucrative frame.

But there are whispers that the stagehands saw the deadline announcement as a slap in the face that came too soon in the negotiating process. And because of that perceived insult, a lockout might not make the stagehands buckle as quickly as the producers would hope.

Among the central issues on the table are the regulations for load-in, the shorthand term for the installation of a physical production into a theater. Producers contend contractual obligations governing manpower requirements and work hours are outdated and overly expensive, while stagehands argue that such rules protect their livelihoods and rep a hard-won arrangement hammered out over 70 years of give-and-take between the unions.

Stagehands also are quick to point out that Broadway is making more money than ever — the 2006-07 season raked in a record $938.5 million — so producers can’t plead poverty. Producers counter that costs are so out of control that the Broadway recoupment rate remains a disheartening one-in-five.

The stagehands have a contingency plan in place, with their Broadway membership, which makes up between 350 and 500 of its workforce of 2,200, aiming to find union work in film or TV.

The producers also have a plan B in the form of a “mutual assistance fund” of $15 million-$20 million, gradually amassed over the last few years to cover a major portion of Broadway producers’ baseline expenses in the event of a work stoppage.

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