Q&A: The Backstage Story on the Broadway Strike

Broadway's marquees went dark Nov. 10, when stagehands went on strike after months of bitter contract negotiations with theater owners and producers. The walkout shut down 27 Broadway shows, from the long-running Les Miserables to the still-in-previews The Farnsworth Invention.

And though the parties hope to settle the strike by Thanksgiving — a new round of talks is scheduled for this weekend — there's no guarantee the pickets will come down anytime soon. Here's a primer about why the show's not going on.

Who's striking? Against whom?

Broadway's stagehands, represented by Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, are the backstage workers who install, operate and maintain the sets, lights and props for Broadway shows. At any given time, approximately 350 to 500 members are employed on Broadway. The union has been in existence for 121 years; this is the first time it has struck on Broadway.

On the other side is the League of American Theatres and Producers, a trade organization for the industry. Its 600 members include theater owners, producers and presenters across North America.

What's the dispute about?

The union has been working without a contract since July 31 and labor negotiations have broken off more than once. At issue: a set of decades-old work rules determining how many people are needed for backstage crews, for loading and unloading sets, and for extra functions like rehearsal calls.

The producers claim the union has successfully institutionalized "featherbedding" — in other words, that the work rules force producers to pay for stagehands who aren't needed or pay hours of overtime for small, easily performed tasks. According to the producers, the current average salary for a stagehand is $150,000.

Local One counters that the producers — who are coming off a record-breaking $939 million season at the box office — have made an offer that would mean a 38 percent cut in jobs and salaries. It would also compromise safety backstage, the stagehands argue. They say they're willing to make changes in the union rulebook if the producers offer an equal exchange.

The union disputes the producers' salary figures, saying the average is $67,000 annually. And they argue that work rules are necessary in an unpredictable industry: While some stagehands work for years in long-running shows, many work only for weeks or months in shows that flop. It's here that both sides agree — according to the league, only one out of every five shows that opens on Broadway goes on to turn a profit.

Why did the stagehands walk out?

In mid-October, the producers implemented new work rules in its Broadway theaters without the union's consent. A week later, the local voted to authorize a strike. The president of the international, Thomas C. Short, sat down at the negotiating table with producers in early November. When those talks reached an impasse, he directed the union to set up picket lines on Nov. 10. All the members of Broadway's other trade unions — actors, musicians, box-office personnel, ushers and press agents among them — have honored the picket lines.

Are all Broadway shows affected by the strike?

No. Twenty-seven shows have been shuttered by the strike, but eight continue to perform: Cymbeline, Mary Poppins, Mauritius, Pygmalion, The Ritz, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Xanadu and Young Frankenstein. These shows perform in theaters that operate under different contracts with Local One.

In addition, off-Broadway and off-off Broadway shows continue to perform. The industry publication Playbill recently published one list of what's still running and what's gone dark.

I bought tickets to a Broadway show that isn't playing because of the strike. How can I get a refund or exchange my tickets?

If you purchased your tickets with a credit card, your card will automatically be credited. If you purchased tickets with cash, you will have to write requesting a refund — the box offices are closed, remember. For further details, check the producers' official Web site.

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