‘Tis the season to be striking: Broadway stagehands picket

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By now you’ve probably heard about the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike. And you probably know that Ellen DeGeneres is catching hell from WGA East. Some of you are thinking, “Well, TV is not looking so good these days; perhaps this is an opportunity to get out of the house and catch some live theater.”

Which is a great idea. Unless your plan is to see Broadway theater.

Local One, the Broadway branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, went on strike Saturday morning, effectively shutting down most of Broadway.

That means tears for all the tweens waiting to see Wicked.

And disappointment for the American Idol fans planning to see Fantasia in The Color Purple.

And no puppet nudity in Avenue Q.

The strike timing appears to have been planned for maximum impact: Although initially authorized last month, negations continued until Thursday, with the actual work stoppage beginning on short notice approximately one hour before the opening curtain of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This left parents and theater professionals to explain why the show wasn’t going on. A friend of mine who was on the front lines all day Saturday noted, “I was one of the people who had to break the news to them live and in person. It was absolutely horrible.”

The Local One strike is more problematic than the WGA strike. If the blog comments are any indication, most folks are pretty quick to rally behind the striking writers. However, people don’t seem to see Local One as the little guy fighting for what’s right.

I asked three theater-connected friends for their opinions, and they all came down (to varying degrees) on the side of the producers. And the comments on the All That Chat message boards have been similarly skewed towards the producers. Most people seem to accept that the stagehands are fighting to maintain arguably outdated work rules.

I’m a little torn. I love theater, and I like unions. And there’s a conflict between them right now. This strike is going to hurt Broadway theater. Shows will close and theater professionals will not work. (Members of the other theater unions are generally supporting Local One.) Of course, I certainly don’t have warm fuzzy feelings about the League of American Theatres and Producers. It’s hard to feel sympathetic for the folks charging $111.50 per ticket for a tired retread of Grease. As the union put it:

“Theatre owners and producers are demanding a 38 percent cut in our jobs and wages. They have built a $20 million fund to be used against us from the sale of theatre tickets to the public. … 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.”

The producers counter that they’re offering to increase wages and that “the stagehands are striking to seek to preserve their right to get paid when there is nothing for them to do.”

The degree to which featherbedding is a problem is certainly up to interpretation. What’s unquestionable is that both sides are currently entrenched. No new talks are planned and the union has rejected the Mayor’s offer to help with mediation.

Tourists who have paid for nonrefundable hotel rooms are making the most of the situation. They’re ice skating at Rockefeller Center, going to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History and snapping up tickets to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. They’re also grabbing any available tickets to Young Frankenstein.

And Xanadu — as well as to the other six Broadway shows not affected by the strike (due to separate contracts with Local One).

Unfortunately, for me, this kills my plan to run out after work one day to grab a cheap ticket to Xanadu. Alas.

But it does mean that I can leave my Times Square office on Wednesday at lunchtime without drowning in a sea of matinee-going tourists. But that’s really stretching for a silver lining.

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