I sit at my desk in December with the rush of the holiday season in full swing. The strike of IATSE Local 1, the first in its 121-year history, is over; that is a relief to everyone. A few statistics will help measure the impact of that work stoppage. The strike closed the majority of the League theatres; more than 300 musicians went without paychecks for three weeks, plus as many or more substitutes. Over 630 visits were made to the picket line at various theatres by officers and employees of Local 802. I’m proud that musicians stood together with the stagehands and that solidarity is stronger than ever among the COBUG unions.
Surprisingly, at least to me, I have been accused by some during this strike of demonstrating less than adequate solidarity with the stagehands, primarily because the letter of support issued for our local over my signature was not sufficiently militant. One writer expressed the opinion that my letter was “wishy-washy and anti-union” because it did not reject the idea of any changes in work rules for the stagehands out of hand. I take no offense at a member expressing his or her opinion, but perhaps my letter does need further explanation, in particular because doing so will illustrate the difference between blind militancy, which has served Local 802 poorly on several occasions in the past, and the kind of informed and pragmatic leadership I believe is necessary in the current economic and political climate in the United States.
First and foremost, it is essential to understand that the letter echoed the talking points of Local 1 itself by expressing its understanding that circumstances change and that working conditions that made sense in the past may need to be altered — as long as the ultimate deal is fair to its members. It may be viscerally satisfying to draw a line in the sand and declare that no compromises will ever be made, but that was not Local 1’s position and it is not our place to satisfy our own need to appear militant at the possible expense of Local 1’s negotiation.
More important to Local 802 internally, one should also remember that this letter was drafted for distribution to the general public, a public that more and more is unsympathetic to unions in general and strikes in particular. Unfortunately, forcing working people to the street to defend their livelihoods no longer brings immediate public condemnation upon employers in this country. As a result, most unions make a concerted effort to make sure that they take the high road — that their demands are reasonable and that the employer is primarily responsible for any potential dispute. Public pressure is an important weapon before and during a strike; outlining a position that appears rational increases the likelihood that the public will be supportive rather than hostile. This not only applied to the Local 1 strike, but will also apply to our own contract campaigns in the future.
Viewed in this light, I think my letter to the public clearly showed our support of Local 1 while reiterating its realistic posture in the negotiation. I think the leadership of that union agrees; our letter was prominently displayed on the Local 1 Web site during the strike.
One valuable byproduct of this work stoppage is that our relationships with Local 1, Equity and the other COBUG unions have never been stronger. That solidarity should serve us well in the future when our own negotiations come around again on Broadway or elsewhere.
Solidarity, unfortunately, is not always sufficient to win a strike. If it were, this job action would have been over on Nov. 11. Now that the strike is over, we need to do a post-mortem with the other COBUG unions and decide what can be done better in the future; that will enable us to support Equity later this year while averting another week on the street. We at Local 802 also have to figure out a way to have greater resources available to us throughout contract cycles so that we are ready to weather the storms that affect other unions. .
In the end, this experience has ably demonstrated how difficult it is to negotiate a fair contract with an employer that has a $20 million battle fund. We expended more than $200,000 in hardship benefits over three weeks; it is clear that the amount allocated to the strike fund under the current bylaws is not sufficient.
It is equally clear that a war chest is not the only key to obtaining a good contract. We have to develop better and more efficient ways to protect our jobs and gain improvements in the future, in addition to increasing the size of our strike fund. Given the parties that we must face at the table, we need a new arsenal at our disposal to emerge victorious from future negotiations. That is perhaps the most valuable lesson we can learn from this situation.