Unlike the relatively brief musicians' strike, which lasted from Friday, March 7, 2003 to early Tuesday morning, March 11, 2003, with a settlement expedited by then-and-current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, industry watchers fear that the current dispute will prove more intractable.
Bloomberg has again offered his assistance to ease the current stalemate, saying in a Nov. 10 statement, "While this is a private labor matter, the economic impact is very public and will be felt far beyond the theatres closed today. It is in everyone's interest for both sides to come together and resolve their differences. I have spoken to both the theatre owners and the stagehands and the City continues to stand ready to help in any way we can." The union, however, has declined the Mayor's offer, with Local One president James J. Claffey, Jr. explaining at a Nov. 11 press conference that his organization will not return to the bargaining table until producers stop using what the union considers inflammatory language regarding work and staffing minimums.
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 boxoffice 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%).
In other strike news, the official opening of The Farnsworth Invention, the new play from "West Wing" scribe Aaron Sorkin - scheduled for this evening, Nov. 14 - was officially postponed by producers. A new opening date will be announced at a later time. Although it has not been officially announced, it is likely that the opening of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer — scheduled for Nov. 15 — will also be postponed. Many first-string critics - whose reviews typically run the day after a show's opening - haven't been able to attend a performance of either play. 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 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."
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."
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.
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 IATSE International President, and directs its members to honor the picket line. The men and women of Local One/IATSE deserve fair wages and working conditions and, most importantly, the respect of everyone who is part of the theatrical community."