Day 11: The Strike Goes On, The Grinch Does Not

News   Day 11: The Strike Goes On, The Grinch Does Not
 
As news spread around the Rialto that most Broadway shows would be closed through at least Sunday, Nov. 25, there was one glimmer of hope — the limited engagement of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas might reopen prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Members of Local One walk the picket line.
Members of Local One walk the picket line. Photo by Matthew Blank

At least those actors, musicians, stagehands, ushers and other theatre personnel at the St. James Theatre would be working during the usually lucrative weekend. The return of the Grinch, however, was short-lived. By late afternoon Nov. 19 it was announced that the holiday-themed musical, the first show to be affected by the strike that began Nov. 10, would not reopen any sooner than the 27 other darkened theatres.

A statement issued Nov. 19 by Jujamcyn Theaters, owners of the St. James Theatre, said, "The Local One Stagehands struck the St. James Theatre at 10:00 am the morning after the Opening of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical. The Grinch will not reopen until the union signs agreements and ends the strike at all theatres and all the other shows that have been closed by their strikes reopen on Broadway."

Earlier on Monday, Grinch general manager David Waggett told Playbill.com that picket lines had come down in front of the St. James Theatre, and Local One had agreed to work the show. However, the producers of Grinch still needed to gain approval from Jujamcyn Theaters. That approval was not granted.

In response to the League's decision, producers of The Grinch will take their case to court. In a statement released at 5:30 PM Nov. 19, Grinch producer James Sanna said, "We appreciate that Local One has recognized our pre-existing agreement and has lifted the strike on The Grinch in spite of their differences with the League. We are going to court tomorrow to seek an injunction to require Jujamcyn to open the doors to families and children planning on coming to the theatre this week. We need someone who believes in the spirit of Christmas to enable the show to re-open for the holidays."

The reason Grinch might have been able to reopen is the production had negotiated its own contract with Local One prior to the strike because the musical offers 12-to-15 a week, different from the eight-performance schedule most other shows employ. While the League's contract with the stagehands expired in July, Grinch began negotiating its own contract with the stagehands in the spring, came to an agreement Aug. 30, and executed it a few weeks later, Grinch general manager Waggett had previously told Playbill.com. Therefore, he said, "Our point of view is that our contract is, in fact, still in effect," but the stagehands still decided to include the show in its strike.

Many had hoped that the Nov. 17-18 weekend of negotiations — the first time the union and the League had sat down together since Nov. 9 — would lead to a quick resolution. Those in the industry believed that the talks, which began Saturday morning, Nov. 17, would be aided by the participation of Robert W. Johnson, a Disney labor relations executive who flew in to mediate. Thomas C. Short, the president of I.A.T.S.E. who had granted strike authorization to the Broadway stagehands union on Nov. 9, was also part of the weekend meetings.

A quick resolution, however, was not in the cards. After two days' worth of negotiations at the Westin Hotel on West 43rd Street, there is no indication when talks might resume. And, in a surprising move that shocked most in the industry, The League canceled performances in the 27 darkened theatres through Nov. 25.

The Nov. 18 statement from Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the League, said: "We are profoundly disappointed to have to tell you that talks broke off tonight, and that no further negotiations are scheduled.

"We presented a comprehensive proposal that responded to the union's concerns about loss of jobs and earnings and attempted to address our need for some flexibilities in running our business. The union rejected our effort to compromise and continues to require us to hire more people than we need.

"Out of respect for our public and our loyal theatergoers, many of whom are traveling from around the world, we regret that we must cancel performances through Sunday November 25."

The union sent out its own press statement at 11 PM Nov. 18. The statement from spokesperson Bruce Cohen read, "Talks between Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the League of American Theatres and Producers broke off late this [evening]. Just before the talks broke off, the producers informed Local One that what Local One had offered was simply not enough. The producers then walked out. Local One will have no further comment."

To date, the strike has forced the postponement of two Broadway openings: The Farnsworth Invention (originally scheduled for Nov. 14 at the Music Box Theatre) and The Seafarer (previously scheduled for a Nov. 15 opening at the Booth). New opening dates have yet to be announced for either show.

Now that shows have been canceled through at least Nov. 25, the opening of August: Osage County (at the Imperial Theatre) and the first preview of The Homecoming (at the Cort Theatre) will also be delayed.

Only eight shows are playing Nov. 20: Cymbeline, Mary Poppins, Mauritius, Pygmalion, The Ritz, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Xanadu and Young Frankenstein.

For months, producers and the union have been hashing out issues of work assignments, setting of a production's run crew, load-in costs and labor minimums. Local One members have been working on Broadway without a contract since July 31.

For information regarding refunds of tickets, click here.

Playbill.com will provide further information as it is made available.

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As the strike continues, its effects continue to multiply. In addition to the millions of dollars in revenue lost by the 27 darkened productions and the severely reduced pay for those on strike, the city of New York estimates it has lost approximately $2 million per day because of the drop-off in business in theatre-district hotels, bars and restaurants.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, NYC & Company and the Times Square Alliance have announced a "Dining in the District" restaurant discount — effective through Nov. 25 — as a means to counter this loss of business. The "special weeklong dining program [is] intended to attract New Yorkers and visitors to restaurants...that have been affected by the Broadway stagehand strike," according to an announcement, and "will offer a 15% discount on lunch or dinner to all patrons at more than 25 participating restaurants." The offer does not include Thanksgiving Day; more information and a list of restaurants can be found by visiting nyc.gov, nycvisit.com or timessquarenyc.org.

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the nation's leading industry based, not-for-profit AIDS fundraising and grant-making organization, has also suffered. It is during this time of year when casts of the Broadway shows make post-show curtain speeches to raise funds for the organization. It is a six-week fundraising drive that leads up to the annual Gypsy of the Year competition. Tom Viola, the executive director of BC/EFA, told NY1, "The strike has hit us right in the middle of the [audience] appeals. For every week of the strike, we've unfortunately lost over $350,000."

In an effort to try to recover some of these losses, BC/EFA has introduced Team Raiser, a chance for interested parties to donate to the Gypsy of the Year competition on-line. Contributions can be made to one's favorite show, and people can also register to fundraise themselves. (For more information click here.)

And, the most tragic strike-related news of the week was the death of a stagehand, who was picketing in front of the Minskoff Theatre on Nov. 16. Francis Lavaia, a Lion King worker, suffered a fatal heart attack while picketing 7 PM Thursday evening. Mr. Lavaia, the Daily News reports, was 57 and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

About the late stagehand, Kenny McDough, the head carpenter at the Booth Theatre, told NY1, "Frank Lavaia was one of the most loved stagehands, one of the most talented. He was just like a father figure to all the people. I know him for over 20 years, and I loved him to death." Kathleen Spock, an usher at the Schoenfeld Theatre, added, "Everybody's gonna remember him. He would do whatever he could for you any time, anywhere. He's a good friend for everyone to have."

Stagehands will continue picketing with a black band around their arms in memory of their late colleague.

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As evidence of a slowdown in theatre-district restaurant business trickles in, the economic impact on the shows themselves has been swift: according to the grosses released Nov. 13 by the League, both Jersey Boys and Wicked, which usually lead the pack, were down nearly half-a-million dollars apiece without their lucrative weekend performances. For the Nov. 5-11 week, Jersey Boys and Wicked took in, respectively, $732,840 and $852,843; the previous week those shows grossed $1,217,333 and $1,335,757. The picture was grimmer for shows already struggling before the work stoppage.

The one silver lining in the overall box office tumble was that seven of the shows not hit by the strike (Young Frankenstein does not reveal its grosses to the League) have seen a bump in attendance. Attendance for the Nov. 5-11 week was up for each of these productions: Cymbeline (67.3%, up from 57.5% the previous week), Mary Poppins (96.7%, from 72.4%), Mauritius (76.3%, from 72.0%), Pygmalion (94.8%, from 91.4%), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (77.3%, from 68.8%), The Ritz (81.0%, from 67.5%) and Xanadu (75.5%, from 55.2%).

Besides shows and neighboring restaurants, the strike's impact is being felt by hotels, gift shops, bars, taxis, pedicabs, even charitable organizations such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, who all depend on the lights going up eight times a week.

"If you'd walked around the area over the weekend, you'd see how instantaneous the drop-off was," Tim Tompkins, the head of the Times Square Business Improvement District, told Playbill.com. "It's absolutely not the same. The thing's that deeper is that a lot of folks come to New York specifically to go to a Broadway show and with this cloud of uncertainty, they postpone or cancel their trips. So that's a double hit."

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While many Broadway ticketholders were left stranded over the (Nov. 10-11) weekend, both the union and the League took their cases to the public by holding dueling press conferences, which were broadcast on local cable channel NY1.

At the League of American Theatres and Producers' press conference on the strike's first day, Nov. 10, executive director Charlotte St. Martin and producers decried the union's absence from the negotiating table Nov. 9 and for not providing any warning about the impending strike. The League also sought to highlight what has come to be the flashpoint of contract negotiations: the issue of employing more union workers than the producers consider necessary, also known as featherbedding.

Largely silent during the three-month period of negotiations leading up to Saturday's strike, the union responded with its own press conference on Nov. 11. Local One president James J. Claffey, Jr. — along with officials of Local 802, the musicians union and Actors' Equity — sought to recharacterize the terms of the dispute as one of the union fighting for its members' families and preserving safety in the theatre.

Claffey said the union is willing to return to the negotiating table but will not do so until "[the producers] give the union more respect." Claffey said the producers' use of the term featherbedding was disrespectful to the union. "As they continue to say featherbedding and they keep [saying] basically that we're thieves," Claffey said, "we're not going back to the table with that lack of respect. . . . We can't negotiate under those circumstances." Although Local One has declined Mayor Michael Bloomberg's offer to mediate a deal, Claffey did say that the union will "come back to the table at some point. Broadway has to continue, and we know that."

The League responded to the union's Nov. 11 press conference with a statement from Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the organization. The press statement, said, in part, "[Local One] left the negotiating table and abruptly went on the picket line. They refused to budge on nearly every issue, protecting wasteful, costly and indefensible rules that are embedded like dead weights in contracts so obscure and old that no one truly remembers how, when or why they were introduced. The union wants you to believe they are the victims, the little guys. . . They are professionals and should be well paid, and will remain the best paid in this industry in the world. We simply don't want to be compelled to hire more workers than needed and pay them when there is no work for them to do. . . .These issues can only be resolved at the bargaining table, not on the picket line. We remain prepared to meet 24/7 until we reach an acceptable agreement."

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Theatregoers, some of whom had purchased tickets months in advance and had not heard about the strike, arrived at theatres on Nov. 10 to be greeted by picket lines and union members handing out flyers explaining why they were striking.

The strike even caught producers off guard, leaving little or no time to alert theatregoers that most Broadway productions were closed. At a Nov. 10 press conference Paul Libin, producing director for Jujamcyn Theaters, said the producers received no verbal or written notification from the union about the strike: "The men came in to work at the St. James Theatre for their work call to set up for the 11 o'clock performance [of How the Grinch Stole Christmas], and at 10 o'clock in the morning, they walked out. No one told us they were going to do that until they did that."

Box offices were also closed for the shows that went dark: the box-office personnel, also union employees, honored the Local One picket lines.

The question remains: When will all of Broadway be up and running? At the aforementioned press conference, Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, addressed that very question. "As we've never had a strike with Local One," St. Martin said, "we don't know the answer to that. I have to believe that there will be pressure from the men to come back to work. We are ready to negotiate. We're sending that message as loud and clear as we can send it."

Hershel Waxman, Vice President of Labor Relations of the Nederlander Organization, also attended the Nov. 10 press conference held by the League. Waxman stated, "We respect the men and women who work for us as stagehands. They do an incredible job for us. We don't belittle anything they do. My disappointment — and I'm speaking for myself — is the lack of leadership of this union. It's the first time in the history of our business that we couldn't come to a deal."

The union and the League reconvened Nov. 7, returning to the negotiating table for the first time in several weeks. Thomas C. Short, the president of I.A.T.S.E. — Local One's parent union — attended the Nov. 7 and 8 meetings, which proved unfruitful. Following the meetings, Short granted final strike authorization to the union.

The first show affected by the strike was the 11 AM performance of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas on Nov. 10. Patrick Page, who stars in the title role of the limited Grinch engagement, told Playbill.com, "I'm heartbroken by the faces of all these kids. . . I've just gone around to give them a hug, maybe sing a little bit of a song for them, and make them feel a little better [about the show being canceled]." When asked about his opinion of the strike, Page said, "My only opinion is that these guys are the backbone of Broadway. I've worked with some of these guys on four or five Broadway shows, and they are amazing craftsmsen and workers, and I have absolutely no idea what goes on in those contract negotiations back and forth, but I do know that Actors' Equity Association supports Local One 100 percent, and I'm a member of [Equity]."

Most Broadway productions are affected by the strike; that is, the shows will not go on until further notice for August: Osage County, Avenue Q, A Bronx Tale, Chicago, A Chorus Line, The Color Purple, Curtains, Cyrano de Bergerac, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Drowsy Chaperone, Duran Duran, The Farnsworth Invention, Grease, Hairspray, Is He Dead?, Jersey Boys, Legally Blonde, Les Miserables, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Mamma Mia!, Spamalot, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Rock 'n' Roll, The Seafarer, Spring Awakening, and Wicked.

The only Broadway productions still running are Xanadu, The Ritz, Mauritius, Cymbeline, Pygmalion, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Young Frankenstein and Mary Poppins. These productions are either presented by Broadway's nonprofit sector or are housed in theatres whose contracts with Local One are separate.

St. Martin posted this statement on the League's official website Nov. 10: "Local One has darkened most of Broadway. They have chosen to strike — without notifying us, rather than to continue negotiating. It is a sad day for Broadway, but we must remain committed to achieving a fair contract. Our goal is simple: To pay for workers we need and for work that is actually performed. Stagehands are highly skilled and highly paid. They are — and will remain — the highest paid stagehands in the theatrical world. We deplore the strike and the harm it does to the City, the industry, and the theatregoing public. Indeed, to all talented people who make Broadway the top tourist attraction in New York. A strike will have an economic impact of $17 million per day in direct and indirect costs. This could have been avoided had the union's leadership chosen to act responsibly at the bargaining table. We extend our sympathy for the inconvenience caused to the theatregoing public, and assure everyone who has purchased tickets that they will get an exchange or refund."

Although the union has not issued an official statement, picketers have been handing out flyers in front of several Broadway theatres. The flyer states, in part, "We truly regret that there is no show. . . Broadway is a billion dollar a year industry and has never been more profitable than now. Cuts in our jobs and wages will never result in a cut in ticket prices to benefit the public, but only an increase in the profits for producers. Unlike the producers, we are not fighting for our second or third homes: we are fighting to keep the one that we have."

Actors' Equity released a statement Nov. 10 at 11 AM ET in support of the union. In its statement, spokesperson Maria Somma said, "Actors' Equity Association strongly supports Local One/IATSE in their efforts to reach a fair and equitable contract. The responsibility for the shutdown of Broadway rests squarely with the League of American Theaters and Producers. The Equity Council, per the Union’s Broadway contract language, endorses and supports the strike, which has been sanctioned by Local One's I.A.T.S.E. International President, and directs its members to honor the picket line. The men and women of Local One/I.A.T.S.E. deserve fair wages and working conditions and, most importantly, the respect of everyone who is part of the theatrical community."

The picket line outside of <i>The Phantom of the Opera</i>'s Majestic Theatre.
The picket line outside of The Phantom of the Opera's Majestic Theatre. Photo by Matthew Blank
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