Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

  Oct. 02–The giant rat has been deflated. Extra security has gone home. And, after an 18-hour strike by workers at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the shows will go on Sunday.

  Leaders of the Kimmel and Local 8 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees penned a deal Saturday putting a strike on weeklong hiatus. After talks failed to produce a new labor deal for stagehands, ushers, wardrobe, and box office workers, the two sides decided to spend the next week in a “cooling-off” period.

  Enduring labor peace is far from assured. Negotiations are expected to be taken up again no sooner than Oct. 10, and if a contract is not reached by then, performances at the Kimmel’s Verizon Hall, Perelman Theater, and Innovation Studio, as well as at the Academy of Music and Merriam Theater, will once again be in jeopardy.

 Four performances were canceled Saturday, and one with singer Audra McDonald was postponed until Nov. 30.

Leaders from both sides agree talks were not moving in the right direction when they broke off about 2:30 a.m. Saturday. IATSE Local 8 business agent Michael Barnes said the counterproposal submitted to the Kimmel was a “poke in the eye” — a response, he said, to the fact that a substantive proposal from the Kimmel first came across the negotiating table about 11:50 Friday night, 10 minutes before the current labor contract was to expire.

 “We covered a lot of ground, and I was very surprised by their last proposal,” said Anne Ewers, president and CEO of the Kimmel Center. “I think the cooling-off period is good. It will give everyone a chance to take a deep breath.”

  But the main impetus for a week of labor peace is that it gives the Opera Company of Philadelphia a chance to complete at least most of its run of Carmen — a strong seller that the opera says is as important to its finances as The Nutcracker is to ballet troupes. All but one performance of Carmen — the last, on Oct. 14 — are protected by the strike hiatus.

 “There will be no picketing, no demonstrations, no animosity. It will be business as usual,” said a relieved David Devan, the opera company’s general director.

If the opera’s entire run of Carmen had been canceled, it would have meant “a substantial blow to this company,” resulting in a loss of just under $2 million on the troupe’s $10 million annual budget, Devan said. It could have led to cancellation of all of the opera’s Academy of Music performances this season, he said.

  If calling for an intermission to a strike is unusual, so was the brief strike itself. Box office staff represented by IATSE reported to work as usual Saturday morning, angering pickets who had arrived in front of the Kimmel with signs and an enormous balloon rat, a fixture at local labor actions.

One stagehand, who identified himself only as Frank, after being asked to rephrase his initial response with words that could be used in a family newspaper, said, “They shouldn’t be in there. I hope they never need our support.” A Kimmel administrator said the box office personnel would join the strike at noon, but they did not. They were still at their posts — with few or no customers in sight — as of early afternoon.

  It was also unclear whether ushers and wardrobe personnel were technically on strike. The union claimed their participation, but Kimmel and Opera Company leaders were less sure.

The debate was academic.  They report to work only when there are shows, and if there are no shows, who could tell whether they were on strike?

  Many Kimmel employees are also part-timers. One stagehand who declined to provide a name said his income had dropped three-quarters since the Kimmel Center had taken over management of the Merriam Theater.

Several stagehands said their compensation, which varies according to how many shows come through town and how often they are called to work, averaged between $40,000 and $70,000 per year.

  “We’re not like workers at the Convention Center,” one said.

A Kimmel spokesman said an analysis of the W-2s issued to stagehands for the 12 months ending June 30, 2010, showed the Kimmel employed 258 of them, the vast majority of whom worked “only a handful of weeks or individual performances.”

Nineteen stagehands were considered full-time, and their average salary was $75,000. Four of those 19 earned more than $110,000 during the year, the spokesman said.

IATSE represents all four units at the bargaining table, and each unit has its own set of issues.

  For everyone, it boils down to wages and working conditions such as staffing levels, according to union members and observers of talks.

Compensation for Web and simulcast events has been an issue, and the Kimmel “wanted to shift some of the work to a nonunion workforce,” Barnes said.

Devan, who with Pennsylvania Ballet executive director Michael G. Scolamiero is taking a role in negotiations, said the goal was to pay stagehands and other professionals what the Kimmel can afford, and make it “enough so that they will stay in the community and enough to feed their families.”

Without a deal, Barnes said, “we will return to the picket line and continue our fight for the fair wages and benefits we deserve and have earned.”

Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://www.philly.com/artswatch. Reprinted from MCTcampus.com.

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