Union and Producers Escalate War of Words on Day 2 of Strike

News   Union and Producers Escalate War of Words on Day 2 of Strike
Largely silent during the months of contentious contract negotiations leading up to the strike that shut down most of Broadway over the weekend, Local One, the stagehands union, held its first press conference Nov. 11 to make its case to the public. The League of American Theatres and Producers, which had held its own press conference a day earlier, responded quickly with a press release, reiterating its position, and citing examples of what it termed "wasteful and costly" union work rules.

Held at St. Malachy's Church on West 49th Street in Manhattan, the Local One press conference was presided over by James Claffey Jr., the president of that 121-year-old organization, with support from Bill Dennison, the recording vice-president of Local 802 (the musicians union) and the executive director of Actors' Equity, John Connelly.

Claffey said that the union has purposefully avoided taking their case to the press because he believes that the producers and the union should be able to hash out their issues in private and reach an agreement "that's honorable. We believe that that time has passed, and it's necessary to defend ourselves in the press because we are being attacked."

"[The League] tried to provoke us to strike for weeks and weeks and weeks. Why do you implement on a group that you know is capable of taking you on if you don't want them to strike? They wanted public support. . . They implemented on us without bargaining. There's no honor in that. None." Claffey was referring to the fact that in late October the League began implementing portions of its proposed contract that the union had previously rejected.

When asked what he would say to theatregoers who had purchased tickets to darkened shows, Claffey said, "I ask for their understanding. We're fighting for our lives, just as I expect they 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."

Claffey said the union is willing to return to the negotiating table but will not do so until the producers stop using the term featherbedding — employing more workers than needed — as the union considered the term disrespectful: "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." Although New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has offered to mediate a deal between the two sides, Claffey said that the union has declined that offer. During the Q&A session with Claffey, the heated issue of work minimums came up repeatedly. Citing one example, the union leader contended that if a show requires 3 hours of work out of an 8-hour day, the union member should be due 8 hours of pay, likening it to the hypothetical situation of firefighters being paid only for the time spent putting out a fire instead of the time having to wait for the fire.

The producers in their Nov. 10 press conference said they want to be able to hire the number of stagehands they need rather than the number of men the union prescribes. Claffey argued that "as the shows get so much bigger, they get so much harder [to work], and my members are getting hurt. I can't deal with [the producers'] bottom line, I have to deal with the protection of my members. If there's a four-person piece that needs to be moved, [the producers are] going to want to do it with three. And, I can't count on them because our relationship is not the same as it used to be because their bottom line is more important than keeping the people safe in our theatre.”

Claffey said that the union has agreed to some concessions. "Right now if you have 32 stagehands on a load-in . . . it requires if you start the call at 8 AM and you go to midnight, all 32 stay on from 8 to midnight. We said at 5 o'clock, you can reduce that number to a minimum number that we've decided. They want that minimum number to be lower."

"We have made [other] compromises. It's just never enough. We've granted 9 or 10 things. They want 30 or 40. They cannot go through our contract after 121 years in one negotiation and just annihilate us."

Both the musicians union's Dennison and Actors' Equity's Connelly, were on hand to offer support, with Dennison saying, "Unions on Broadway, all of us, are going to stand side by side with the stagehands until this is solved in a way that the members of that proud union are satisfied with, and we will continue to be there with them."

Claffey said that the union has a $5.2 million reserve, which he called a "defense fund," which will be used to help all those in the theatre community who have been affected by the strike.

Claffey concluded, "We need to defend our families, and we took action. I'm very proud of what my members have chosen to do, and I'm even more proud of our brothers and sisters out there, who understand what we need to do. . . They know it's going to be them next. They're going to go after you if you're not able to protect yourself. I want to demonstrate to everyone in the theatrical community we're going to defend ourselves, and when you need to defend yourselves, we're going to be there with you. . . . We are going to come back to the table at some point. Broadway has to continue, and we know that."

The League of American Theatres and Producers responded to the Nov. 11 press conference with a statement from Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the organization. The press statement, reads, in part, "Local One, IATSE, 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. 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."

The press release included what the producers cited as examples of excessive or costly legacy work rules that they are seeking to curtail, such as "a flyman making a $160,000 annually in salary and benefits is required for all productions, even when there is no fly cue in the production and no flyman is needed." Producers claim that stagehands' "average annual earnings, in salary and benefits, is more than $150,000, with many stagehands earning more than $200,000."

The union has disputed salary figures provided by the League, with Claffey stating at the press conference earlier in the day, "We have an $88,000 annual salary [for department heads at each theatre]. . . if they're working that week." In response to a question from the press about what the average salary of a union member is, Claffey answered, "[You] can't say an average salary unless you know exactly how many weeks you're working . . .The $150,000/$1600,000 that I heard yesterday [at the producers' press conference] is not factual. If you build in more hours and you work more time, you can accrue more earnings . . . The majority of people that work in the theatres from Local one [are making] $67,000. We're not going to apologize for the talent and skill that we bring to the table."

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