On Strikes, Respect and Heroes

Organizing Matters

Volume CVIII, No. 1January, 2008

Joel LeFevre

Click for larger image.

The stagehands’ Broadway strike was called many things in the 12,000 news stories it generated in its three-week life.

Papers and broadcasters repeated the producers’ lines that it was about ending “featherbedding” — a pejorative term for requiring specific numbers of workers to accomplish a task.

Others endeavored to include the union’s side as well; they described the negotiations as a give-and-take process, except the producers were only about the “take” part.

All but a handful missed the essential reason for the Broadway strike.

Any stagehand could tell you what it was about: respect.

Every mature collective bargaining agreement like the Local 1 contract contains choices that reflect the priorities of the union, which are often things management sees themselves as having been forced to accept.

Depending on the decade when sections of a contract were negotiated, the relative ease with which management accepted those items will reflect the state of business thinking at that time. Identifying and eliminating all “unproductive compensation” is the mantra from business schools to their MBA candidates in the lean and mean 1990’s. This thinking caught up to Broadway in 2007.

The worker knows that it’s a hard-won perk to be paid for a minimum number of hours, even if the job doesn’t always take that long. The manager wants such minimum calls eliminated, not enshrined. Management simply does not acknowledge the point of view that a minimum call of, say, four hours of overtime pay when only two hours of work gets done, is a tribute being paid to strength. It takes hard work to do the job of a stagehand and it feels harder added on at day’s end.

The producers wanted to end this practice, but they didn’t want to give anything in return. But something for nothing indicates a lack of respect. And at negotiation time, no respect means no work: a strike. Simple and direct. I heard this theme over and over again from stagehands I spoke with on the picket lines.

In labor disputes it is always fundamentally about respect. Respect for your body by providing for comprehensive health insurance, respect for your old age by providing pensions, respect for your craft by providing safe environments and manageable work hours. Respect is the coin of the realm in bargaining but it apparently was in too short a supply on Broadway in 2007.


The week I got married, 16 years ago, Local 32BJ was on strike. (That’s the union that represents janitors and security guards.) When we left the building for our wedding ceremony, my wife and I got giant hugs and smiles from Mike Rosado as he and his co-workers picketed in front of our Riverside Drive building. Mike worked as a doorman for over 25 years at that site. When we returned from our honeymoon, we learned that Mike did not feel well while picketing and went home the day we saw him. He passed away of a heart attack. He was a casualty in that 1991 struggle for respect.

Back then, Mike explained to me that his employer, represented by the Realty Association, decided not to pay respect to new young workers. Management wanted to pay them less for the same work. Disrespect is unacceptable, so the union had to strike. Anyone who dies during a strike does so, in part, because of the tremendous stress a strike puts on everyone. Anyone who dies during a strike dies a hero.

In much the same way, Frank Lavaia, 57, the head property man at “Lion King,” died of a heart attack while on the Local 1 picket line. At his funeral, I told his oldest son that in my book, his father died a hero.

It turns out that Frank’s sons both worked as stagehands with their dad — on the same show, no less. At the funeral, his oldest son read a list of things that he will never do again, which included leaving for work three full hours early because his dad just had to be perfectly prepared, and mopping the stage twice every time, for fear that Frank would find a spot he missed.

Frank Lavaia was a perfectionist, master craftsman, dedicated family man — and a passionate Red Sox fan in Yankee land. He always knew that he wanted to be dressed in his game day uniform for his funeral, and he was.

I think that Frank Lavaia and Mike Rosado have met in heaven, along a hero’s walkway dedicated to respect.