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Broadway Faces Strike by Stage Hands

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Broadway Faces Strike by Stage Hands

Performing Arts

Broadway Faces Strike by Stage Hands

Broadway Faces Strike by Stage Hands

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The union representing Broadway's stage hands calls for a strike vote after working without a contract since July. Producers say that starting Monday they will enforce portions of a final contract offer rejected by the union. Theaters could soon go dark.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

This morning the stagehands union voted unanimously to authorize a strike on Broadway. The stagehands have been working without a contract since July but they've set no date for the strike yet.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Any playwriting teacher will tell you that the essence of drama is conflict. And the dispute between Broadway's producers and stagehands has been particularly contentious. On one side are the producers who are coming off Broadway's highest-grossing season yet, pulling in almost a billion dollars in ticket sales. On the other side are the stagehands, the approximately 350 workers who operate and install Broadway sets and lights. They can bring home over $100,000 a year in salary.

Bruce Cohen is spokesperson for the stagehands.

Mr. BRUCE COHEN (Spokesman, Local One): Local One is the founding union of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. In our 121 years, we have never struck on Broadway.

LUNDEN: But they just might do that. Contract negotiations broke off almost two weeks ago. Work rules are at the heart of the dispute with The League of American Theaters and Producers.

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the league, says while Broadway's box office is booming its costs are spiraling.

Ms. CHARLOTTE ST. MARTIN (Executive Director, The League of American Theaters and Producers): What we're trying to accomplish in the new agreement is modernizing a contract that was really made in another century, literally. And that forces the producers and the theater owners to hire people for jobs that we don't need, pay for hours that aren't worked.

LUNDEN: St. Martin points out that the expired contract requires producers to hire a fly man, someone who pulls curtains and scenery up and down whether the set design requires it or not.

Ms. ST. MARTIN: Which to a show means about $160,000 a year. That's a significant amount of money.

LUNDEN: Another sticking point is the high cost of loading sets and lights for new shows into theaters, the complex operation that can take weeks and costs up to a fifth of the show's budget. Regardless of how many stagehands are needed on any given day, the producers have to pay for an entire crew.

Bruce Cohen says the union is willing to be flexible but can't accept the producer's package. The five-year contract provides for a substantial wage increase but cuts jobs - a 38 percent cut for set and light load-ins according to the stagehands.

Mr. COHEN: And that we just find intolerable. We find it will create unsafe conditions.

LUNDEN: The stagehands have said, despite the strike vote, they have no plans at present for a work stoppage even under the producer's imposed rules.

But James Claffey Jr., Local One's president says there will be, quote, "no work in December without a deal," unquote, which means most of Broadway theaters could go dark during the holidays - traditionally the most lucrative time of the season. Clearly, the final act of this drama has yet to be written.

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

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