As Local 802’s Broadway negotiations approach, here’s how one organization is strengthening the position of Broadway’s unions and guilds
The Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. During this dark time for New York City, all the unions and guilds that represent Broadway’s many workers recognized that if they could speak with one voice in solidarity and unity, they could build a more powerful voice for the artists and technicians who make Broadway work.
Representatives from each of the unions began to meet informally, more and more frequently, and slowly began to recognize the need for a structure and a public identity for the group, which eventually included 16 different unions and guilds representing all aspects of the Broadway theatre, from actors, musicians, playwrights, directors and choreographers, to costume, set and lighting designers, stagehands, ushers and ticket-takers, box office personnel, wardrobe, hairstylists, porters, press agents and company managers.
By 2003, representatives from all of these unions came together at a facilitated planning session where COBUG was officially born. At its founding, its big picture goals were to move beyond meeting only in emergency situations, as it had immediately following 9/11, to become stronger and more relevant within the industry, to get a handle on industry changes, to speak with a unified voice, and to have the strength and ability to support each other.
The founding mission of COBUG is “to strengthen the position of every constituent union and guild within the industry and to make the employers, the federal, state, and city governments and the public aware of our collective role and the need to include the coalition in decision making that affects Broadway and the art and craft of theatre at large.”
The structure of COBUG is determined by consensus of its separate constituents, as opposed to collective bargaining. It has minimal dues, no staff, and no physical location. It exists first and foremost because of the deep commitment that organizations within it have to one another. Despite the myriad responsibilities and challenges each union and guild may face at any given moment, their leaders gather every month, entirely voluntarily, both to wrestle with common issues and share news that may be pertinent to others. COBUG also celebrates the achievements of its members, most notably through the annual Broadway Salutes event, where longtime Broadway workers are recognized. COBUG, and indeed the strength upon which it is built, is found within its members, like the unions and guilds themselves. Our work on Broadway connects us all.
COBUG’s constituent unions and guilds – and indeed every worker on Broadway – owe a debt of gratitude to Tony DePaulo, co-director of stagecraft of IATSE, who has been chair since COBUG’s founding (co-chairing with Equity’s Alan Eisenberg for many years). Tony participated in the very first planning sessions and retreats and provided enormous continuity. It is impossible to place a value on his contributions.
Now it falls to both of us to sustain the strength and momentum of COBUG. The challenges facing the labor movement are very real in this complicated political environment. COBUG provides an environment for us to remain informed about issues that have impact on the lives of our collective members. Our forum provides an opportunity for industry leaders, government officials, and labor leaders to meet with us and develop relationships while allowing us to consider strategies to respond to current events. There are perennial issues, including the question of how entertainment industry workers can sustain themselves economically in the greater New York area. There are also ever-evolving issues raised by new technology, especially in the digital space.
Yes, each member of COBUG develops its own policies and terms, but it is essential that we explore how to achieve these goals together as well. Broadway is a key driver in New York City’s economy. The role that nearly 100,000 theatrical workers play in keeping it healthy cannot be overstated.
Fifteen years on, it is fair to say that COBUG’s intentions were the right ones and everyone involved has stayed true to our mission. But there’s always more to do, especially as Broadway draws more audiences and expands its revenues. Every member of every union and guild deserves the benefits and protections that should come with the proverbial rising tide. COBUG represents an extraordinary coming together of the constituencies that make Broadway work, doing the work that connects us all.
For more information on Local 802’s participation in COBUG, call Local 802 at (212) 245-4802, and ask for the President’s Office or the Theatre Department.
Laura Penn is the executive director of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. Joe Hartnett is the assistant department director of stagecraft of IATSE. Together, they are the co-chairs of the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds.
WHO IS IN COBUG?
the coalition of Broadway Guilds and Unions includes: the AFM (both the national AFM and Local 802); Actors’ Equity; IATSE (both the national IATSE and several locals listed below); the Theatrical Protective Union (Local 1 IATSE); Stage Directors and Choreographers Society; American Guild of Musical Artists; SEIU Local 32BJ; Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (Local 18032, IATSE); Dramatists Guild of America; Teamsters Local 817; International Union of Operating Engineers Local 30; Make-Up Artists and Hairstylists (Local 798, IATSE); Mail Telephone Order Clerks (Local B-751, IATSE); Moving Picture Projectionists and Allied Crafts (Local 306, IATSE); Treasurers and Ticket Sellers Union (Local 751, IATSE); Theatrical Wardrobe Union (Local 764, IATSE); , SDC; United Scenic Artists (Local 829, IATSE).