Broadway Labor Negotiations at Impasse

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Broadway is on the verge of going dark, as labor negotiations between the League of American Theaters and Producers and the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees — the union that represents the stagehands — have come to an impasse.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This could be a significant day for labor from the assembly line to the chorus line. On Broadway, talks have reached an impasse between theater owners and the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees; that's the union that represents stagehands. Both sides made final offers last night, and the producers may lock out the stagehands.

Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN: Broadway is New York's top tourist attraction. Last season, 12 million people attended Broadway shows, and the industry as a whole creates about $5 billion for New York's economy every year. So everyone stands to lose a great deal, and not just the stagehands and producers, says Christopher Haywood, director of tourism public relations at NYC & Company, the city's marketing agency.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HEYWOOD (Director, Travel and Tourism Public Relations, NYC & Company): It's everything from the cab drivers to the street vendors to all the businesses that are in the Time Square area that really cater to the theater crowd.

LUNDEN: The last time Broadway went dark was when the musicians went on strike for four days in 2003, costing the city about $7 million a day in lost income. This time, the dispute is between the producers and the stagehands, who do everything from building, moving and lighting sets to raising the curtain. The show literally cannot go on without them. The producers would like to change the contract to eliminate work rules they find outmoded and outdated.

Gordon Cox of Variety says, for instance, the costs for stagehands to load in sets for Broadway shows can come to as much as a million and a half dollars.

Mr. GORDON COX (Reporter, Variety): The same number of stagehands needs to be present for an entire loading process, even if maybe the focus of the day's work is just the electrics or just the scenery, so that the people who do not specialize in those areas are sitting around waiting to be called on but still being paid for it.

LUNDEN: From the stagehand's perspective, not only are Broadway shows becoming more technologically complex and difficult to install, but the producers are making more money than ever, finding new income streams like charging premium ticket prices from 200 to $450 for the best seats in the house.

Mr. COX: Broadway grosses in particular have been quite strong. A billion dollar season is a possibility. So the stagehands' argument is, look, you've got all this money; it's not like you're suffering.

LUNDEN: The producers point out even with record income, four out of every five Broadway shows that open fail to make back their investment. And they feel additional pressure to get the dispute settled before the holiday season, says Variety's Gordon Cox.

Mr. COX: The holidays is one of the time limits, because it is the most profitable time on Broadway always, particularly the week between Christmas and New Years, that nobody wants to go dark on because that's when they make a whole lot of money.

LUNDEN: The producers have amassed a $20 million contingency fund to weather a work stoppage. Local One has arranged their own contingency plan that will allow Broadway's 350 stagehands to temporarily work in New York's film and television industry.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

INSKEEP: And let's keep you up to date on the Chrysler strike, or what may be the Chrysler strike. Our correspondent from Michigan Radio is at a UAW hall, where Chrysler employees have already been picking up the picket signs and autoworkers at Chrysler plants have already started walking off the job. We have no formal announcement of a strike as of now, but if there is a formal strike, 49,000 workers will leave their jobs.

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