Call it the month of solidarity. Broadway came together in November when stagehands of IATSE Local 1 went on strike for the first time in their union’s 121-year history.
At the same time, TV and film writers also pounded the pavement over issues involving new media.
Actors and musicians, who were deeply affected by both walkouts, marched on picket lines together. It was reminiscent of Local 802’s strike of 2003 when all of Broadway united.
“Once again, we see how crucial solidarity is for those of us who work in the entertainment industry,” 802 President Mary Landolfi told Allegro. “It is the only way to confront the power we see on the other side of the bargaining table. Solidarity was key in 2003 and I believe it is even more important in 2007 and beyond.”
The writers’ and stagehands’ strikes each have different origins and issues, but the reasons behind both are similar.
As 802 member and trumpeter Barry Danielian put it, “We are living in a time where national and multi-national corporations are running amok with greed. The question is, do they value us or are we an obstacle to a greater profit margin?”
Cellist Richard Locker echoed this. “It’s time that we stop allowing multi-billion dollar businesses to get away with pleading poor. United we stand, divided we fall,” Locker told Allegro in an e-mail last month, during the strike.
During the last two years and in preparation for these negotiations, producers had built up a $20 million war chest. This fund was created to allow producers to weather a potential lockout, or — absent that — a strike.
Right off the bat, the producers demanded wholesale changes in the Local 1 contract and the decades-old job rules and protections that had become a part of the stagehands’ wage structure.
Then, throughout September and October, the League regularly set deadlines and threatened a lockout. Local 1 negotiators wisely stayed at the table, refusing to be provoked and continuing to seek solutions.
On Oct. 23, the League declared an impasse and unilaterally imposed many of its negotiating demands. Again Local 1 members stood their ground, and kept working and talking.
Finally, on Nov. 10, the strike began. The League had about seven days or more to settle before Thanksgiving week, the second biggest-grossing week of the year. By this time, however, it appeared that too much had been invested in the producers’ effort to rewrite the Local 1 contract. Talks went nowhere and when they fell apart on Nov. 18, the League announced that theatres would be closed for the entire Thanksgiving week.
By this time the impact was clearly being felt by everyone, including producers and theatre owners. In 2006, Thanksgiving week grossed over $23 million. The loss of this week in 2007 puts the League’s $20 million “war fund” in perspective.
During the strike, Local 1 donated a total of $167,500 to Local 802. This allowed 802 to increase the strike benefits the union paid out to Broadway musicians.
Ultimately, what did the strike mean for Broadway?
The stagehands withstood the assault and refused to allow producers to dictate terms. Actors and musicians stood in solidarity with them. After two weeks, they remained united and strong.
In short, Local 1’s unity, along with the solidarity of the entire Broadway labor community, created an environment where real give-and-take negotiations took place. That was a significant and lasting triumph for all who work on Broadway.
“The support from the members of Equity and Local 802 continues to be an inspiration to us all,” wrote Local 1 Recording-Corresponding Secretary Robert Score. “The bonding of the three unions is a clear example that unity brings with it great strength.”
Equity Executive Director John Connolly agrees. Connolly told Allegro, “Equity fully supported our sisters and brothers from Local 1 from day one of their effort to achieve a fair contract with the League, just as we stood by members of Local 802 in their strike in 2003 to keep Broadway music live.”
Connolly added, “Onstage, in the pit, and behind the scenes, actors, musicians and stagehands are a dedicated team of professionals of the highest caliber who have long earned the right to a reasonable livelihood from their work, and respect from our employers. We hope that the daunting price and sobering hardships and lessons of Local 1’s first Broadway strike in 121 years will guarantee many years of wisdom and peace in the Broadway community. I know in my heart that every stakeholder in ‘The Business’ is filled with tearful joy at the sight of the lights shining brightly, the bands playing spritely, and the curtains rising nightly once again.”
MORAL ARGUMENT WON
In addition to achieving the support of all the other unions during the strike, stagehands also won the moral argument with the public:
- In the middle of the strike, Local 1 took down its picket lines for a benefit show for a children’s service agency, which stagehands had been scheduled to work.
- Also during the strike, Local 1 agreed to work the show “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” at the St. James Theatre. (The producers of the show had previously negotiated a different contract, not affected by the strike.) But the owner of the theatre — Jujamcyn Theatres, a member of the League — tried to lock out the show instead. The producers sued Jujamcyn; a judge ordered the show opened.
- Finally, just compare the salaries of the producers and owners to those of the stagehands: there’s no comparison.
On the other side of the spectrum, the writers, who are still on strike as Allegro goes to press, are basically holding out for additional and broader back-end payments when their work is created for or streamed on new media, like the Internet, iPods or cell phones.
The employers, who are represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, are attempting to limit these payments to what is in the current agreement, which range from 1 to 1.5 percent. Also, the alliance refuses to negotiate with the writers over work that is created exclusively for new media, like Webisodes.
The outcome of this strike will likely have an impact on any future AFM negotiations that rely on back-end payments.
At the present time, all of the unions and guilds — writers, directors, actors, musicians, IATSE — earn similar back-end percentage amounts, between 1 and 1.5 percent. Bargaining within the same group of employers or industry most often follows a pattern. The writers — or the directors — will set the pattern for the rest of the unions, including musicians.
That makes all of us natural allies in the effort to establish a fair share for new use and new media.
No one union has obtained a compensation system for new media commensurate with the value that the employers will reap.
Industry insiders, as reported in Variety, foresee an increase of 10 percent per year for at least three years, as producers recapture the viewing public’s time on fully-sponsored and streamed television product on the Internet.
The Writers’ Guild deserves AFM members’ active support on the picket line. We should remember that because it truly is one fight.
Bill Dennison, Mikael Elsila, Mary Landolfi, Joel LeFevre and Jay Schaffner all contributed to this report.