Instead of Les Misérables, theatergoers were miserable. And outside A Chorus Line: a picket line. On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 10, Local One, the union representing Broadway’s stagehands, staged a walkout, shutting down more than two dozen plays and musicals from long-runners like Mamma Mia to newcomers like August: Osage County. The issue? Stagehands have been working without a contract since July. Union president James Claffey says ”months and months and months” of negotiations between Local One and the League of American Theaters and Producers finally came to a head, and with no new talks currently scheduled, the bright lights of the Great White Way could be dim for several days — even weeks.
Saturday’s 11 a.m. performance of the limited-engagement holiday musical How the Grinch Stole Christmas was the strike’s first casualty. In a press conference Saturday afternoon, League president Charlotte St. Martin called the strike ”unnecessary” and pointed out a bitter irony. ”It is fitting… that the first show they walked out on was How the Grinch Stole Christmas, because today, the Union showed that it is willing to take away the magic of Broadway from children and adults,” she said.
Local One held its own press conference on Sunday, day 2 of the strike, in which Claffey said, ”We want respect at the table. If there’s not respect at the table, they will not see Local One there.”
Claffey declined to elaborate on every point over which the League and Local One disagree, but he did cite one major issue, what the producers call ”featherbedding.” Producers accuse the stagehands of claiming they need more workers than necessary on a show. The stagehands, however, claim the producers put profit before safety, efficiency, and fairness. ”If they require us to be there three hours out of eight hours, are we supposed to get paid for [just] three hours?” Claffey asked. ”At the firehouse down the street, what if they only got paid to put that fire out instead of the time they’re waiting for the fire?”
Claffey also refuted the League’s claim that the average stagehand earns more than $150,000 annually, stating that the average hovers closer to $67,000, and said that not every stagehand is employed 52 weeks out of the year at a long-running show like The Phantom of the Opera.
”We’re sad that it had to come to this,” said David Hyde Pierce, the Tony-winning star of Curtains. ”There’s no way of knowing how long it will last.” Pierce has been on the picket lines, walking with the stagehands, and talking to fans, as has Grinch star Patrick Page, who sang to pint-size fans outside the St. James Theater. Handmade signs proclaiming ”We-heart-our stagehands” decorated the barricades on 45th Street, in front of the Jacobs Theatre, which houses the just-opened British import Rock ‘N’ Roll. ”They’re as crucial to the show as we are,” said star Sinéad Cusack of the stagehands as she distributed fliers to passing cars. ”I wouldn’t dream of not supporting the strike.”
This is the first time in Local One’s 121-year history that the union has struck. Mayor Bloomberg has offered his mediation services, but the union has ”respectfully” declined. The last strike on Broadway came in 2003, when Local 802, the musicians’ union, walked off the job for four days.
There are still eight shows still running during the strike: Xanadu, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Mauritius, Young Frankenstein, Cymbeline, The Ritz, Pygmalion, and Mary Poppins. Those shows are produced by nonprofits or housed in independently-owned theaters that have their own deal with the stagehands.
Theatergoers who have tickets to shut-down shows may obtain refunds or exchanges at point of purchase. For more information, visit ILoveNYTheater.com.