N.Y. producers, stagehands reach accord

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- The league representing Broadway's theater owners and producers and the union representing its stagehands reached a settlement last night, bringing to an end a strike that had shut most of Broadway for 18 days, disrupted the plans of thousands of theatergoers and cost the city tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

The settlement ended the second strike on Broadway in five years but the longest since the 25-day musicians' strike in 1975. A musicians' strike in 2003 lasted four days.

About 350 of the 2,200 active members of the union, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, participated in the walkout, which began Nov. 10.

The strike darkened 30 theaters, shutting 26 shows and one Duran Duran concert, which moved elsewhere. Eight shows remained open on Broadway in theaters that maintained separate contracts with the union, though a ninth - Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical - was reopened Friday after a judge granted an injunction forcing the theater to let the show run.

Most shows were expected to resume performances today, the union said.

At the center of this dispute were work rules in the stagehands' contract that the League of American Theaters and Producers considered costly and inefficient.

The league wanted changes to several rules, including those governing how many stagehands must come to work every day that a show is being loaded into a theater; minimum lengths of time for which stagehands can be called to work; and the kinds of tasks stagehands are allowed to perform during certain work calls.

From the beginning, James J. Claffey Jr., the president of Local 1, said the union would be open to changes in return for benefits of equal value. But the league, pushed by a younger, more aggressive generation of producers, was determined to cut labor costs.

For months the sides bargained over the rules, and some changes were made, if not the major ones the producers originally sought. And in the past few days, the negotiations came down to how much the union thought these changes were worth.

The league was determined for these negotiations to be different from past talks, raising a $20 million fund to weather a work stoppage, declaring a deadline and floating the possibility that it would lock out the stagehands.

In the end, the timeline played out much as it usually has, with a settlement coming during the busy holiday season, when labor disputes have often come to a close.

But even though strikes are not unknown on Broadway, never before in its 121-year history had Local 1 called a walkout.

The talks, at times acrimonious, broke down in early October, with both sides presenting what they called final offers. On Oct. 12, the stagehands voted unanimously to give union officials authority to call a strike; four days later, the league announced it was imposing parts of its final offer on the stagehands, and the scene was set.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg offered to provide a mediator and a neutral place to talk, such as Gracie Mansion, an offer that the union repeatedly declined. Bloomberg said publicly that he would not become involved unless asked, though behind the scenes his aides continued to urge the sides to meet for more talks.

After a week of a mostly dark Broadway, the league and the union met again for talks Nov. 17 and 18. Thomas C. Short, the president of Local 1's parent union, and Robert Johnson, a senior labor relations executive from Disney, sat in on these negotiations but they, too, ended in failure. Shortly after the talks broke down, the league announced that all of the affected Broadway theaters would stay dark for Thanksgiving week, one of the most lucrative of the year.

The union requested that formal talks resume again Sunday and, after a series of back-channel conversations between league members and union officials, the league agreed.

The two sides met until just before dawn Monday, recessed until that evening and went for a second all-night session that ended after dawn Tuesday. Then, after what union officials called a "rain delay," the final day of talks began yesterday morning.

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