The stagehands union Local One called a strike on Saturday morning, Nov. 10, shutting down all but eight shows on Broadway. The walkout was reported in many places to be the first in the union's 121-year history. (However, this is contradicted by Local One's own website, which states that, in 1888, "a strike at the Bowery Theatre and a walkout at Wallacks Theatre, was followed by a strike at the Academy of Music on 14th Street," resulting in a wage increase. Wallacks! This union is so old it worked at Wallacks!).
The first show affected was Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, leaving lots of disappointed kids, some of whom were comforted on the street by the show's star Patrick Page. For the record, I was actually due to take my kid to The Grinch this past weekend. My son took the cancellation well, but I was nearly inconsolable.
The timing of the strike came as a bit of a surprise. Many observers thought the union would wait until Tuesday, so as not to disrupt weekend business. Thus, many producers were caught off guard when they woke up Saturday morning. The news stories soon began, with reports touting a $17 million loss for Broadway and the City for every day of the strike.
Local One, looking to communicate its position, held a press conference Nov. 11 at St. Malachy's Church on West 49th Street in Manhattan, presided over by James Claffey Jr.. "We're fighting for our lives, just as I expect [the producers] would [fight for theirs]. . . . This isn't just about us. This is about a middle class job that we're trying to protect. We suggest to the public that's trying to pay for that ticket — we're trying to keep our wages so we can afford that same ticket that they have to pay for."
He added, "We're not going back to the table with that lack of respect. . . . We can't negotiate under those circumstances. . . If I keep seeing featherbedding in the paper, it's just going to enrage my members." Claffey may not have been far off in claiming a lack of respect. The official response to the press conference from the League of American Theatres and Producers' Charlotte St. Martin was notable for its undiplomatic bluntness: "Local One, I.A.T.S.E., the stagehands union, has shut down Broadway. They 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." Ouch!
Local One's fellow unions — those representing actors, musicians, company managers, ushers, even press agents — honored the strike, staying home throughout the week. Repercussions from the strike soon started to pile up (I mean beyond the gruesome fact that reporters were forced to work during the weekend!). The Farnsworth Invention and The Seafarer both had to forego their scheduled Broadway openings. The pop group Duran Duran, performing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, presented its remaining shows at the Roseland Ballroom. The League of American Theatres and Producers' biennial conference, scheduled to begin Nov. 14 in Chicago, was indefinitely postponed. And Times Square area restaurants and shops, meanwhile, were suffering a 50 percent drop in business. "If you'd walked around the area over the weekend, you'd see how instantaneous the drop-off was," said Tim Tompkins, the head of the Times Square Business Improvement District. "It's absolutely not the same."
The strike quickly surpassed the four-day run of 2003's musicians' union walkout. That conflict was resolved by City Hall, but there was no movement in that direction this time around. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's repeated offers to intervene were "respectfully declined," as the phrase went.
By the end of the week, however, a White Knight appeared on the horizon. Riding the valiant steed was not a politician, but a mouse. Mickey Mouse, to be exact. Disney Theatricals convinced the stagehands union to return to the negotiating table with the League, according to a report in The New York Post. Disney even dispatched its top labor lawyers to be part of the meetings, which are scheduled to begin at 10 AM Nov. 17 at an undisclosed venue. The daily contended that Disney — which is not part of the League and has a separate contract with Local One (but still saw two of its shows, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid shut down) — is respected by the union. Particularly well respected, said the Post, is Robert Johnson, Disney's vice president of labor relations who has been with the company since 1977. Johnson, who will be at the meeting, even has the confidence of Thomas Short, the head of Local One's parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or I.A.T.S.E., who triggered the strike on Saturday.
Some now say Broadway will be up and running by Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving. That would be something to be thankful for, indeed.