Now on Broadway: stagehands' strike

An impasse over how many workers are necessary turned into a strike Saturday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It looks as if a Grinch has shut down Broadway. Or is it one of those wacky "Producers" – you know, the characters in Mel Brooks's hit – who's caused the Great White Way to go dark?

It's enough to make a Lion King cry.

All kidding aside, the workers who move the scenery, working for months without a contract, have set up picket lines outside all but eight Broadway shows. The strike is serious business for New Yorkers because Broadway brought in more than $900 million in the 2006-07 season.

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The stagehands, who number about 350, had threatened to set up picket lines months ago. The owners of the shows had talked about locking them out in hopes of resolving the dispute before the arrival of tourists for the holiday season.

On Saturday, the stagehands' union decided to bring the impasse to the streets and walked out.

"Everyone will be damaged by this. It's not good for anyone," says Harold Vogel, an entertainment expert and president of Vogel Capital Management. "But both sides have to show they are standing for principles."

The producers of the shows are trying to reduce the number of workers needed to "move in" new shows. They're also trying to get some productivity savings in current shows. The stagehands maintain all their jobs are necessary.

One publicist, who did not want to be named because of his involvement with the industry, says there is a lot of featherbedding in the shows. "The men and women doing this are very well paid, working under rules created a long time ago," he avers.

However, Lowell Peterson, a labor lawyer with Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, says the workers naturally want to maximize their employment. "The union says you are overworking us to the point where our health is affected," he says.

The union maintains that the shows are raking in money. For the 2006-07 Broadway season, box-office receipts totaled $938.5 million, according to Variety. Theatergoers are paying more than $100 a ticket for regular seats.

Despite the high prices, the shows are not increasing their profitability, Mr. Vogel says. "If they are able to control their labor costs more it would help," he says.

Vogel points out that the risk of failure is high. "Many [shows] have tried and few succeed," he says.

Vogel once decided to invest a small amount of money in a Broadway production to find out how the system worked. "The show was a dramatic show with a good famous actor," he recalls. "The show closed in two weeks, and I lost my investment."

This is far from the first time the show has not gone on. In 2003, the musicians' union went on strike. That disruption lasted only four days. Yet in the latest strike, no negotiations are scheduled after two days and nights of picketing.

Tourists may have to go to Chicago, the namesake of one darkened production, to see any bright lights.

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