If Broadway shows have gotten unusually expensive, one major reason is the dominant presence of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local One. Not too many people are aware of the power of this 3,000-member stagehands’ union. But its leaders have managed to exact enormous concessions from arts management along the Great White Way, and at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and elsewhere. For the bosses, at least, it’s been a sweet deal. An article in the Winter 2010 issue of City Journal, a quarterly periodical of the Manhattan Institute, summarizes just how sweet – and why the situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
The short piece, written by New Criterion Managing Editor James Panero and titled “Strike the Set,” notes that this union of carpenters, electricians and prop masters has amassed almost unchecked power. This has served to drive up production costs and force theater owners to raise ticket prices. Local One top brass aren’t complaining. For the fiscal year ending June 2008, Dennis O’Connell, a union member who serves as property manager for Carnegie Hall, received more than $530,000 in compensation; that was second only to Carnegie Hall Executive Director Clive Gillinson. Four other stagehands – James Csollany, Kenneth Beltrone, John Goodson and John Cardinale – each made over $400,000. Nice work if you can get it. Other members can make out well, too, so long as they play by the rules of the union-controlled promotion system. It’s an unwritten rule that first preference goes to family members and relatives.
Such arrangements, the author notes, are stifling even during good times. But as theater revenues have suffered during the latest recession, union compensation packages “should receive the same scrutiny as the pay rates of top management.” While it’s true executive directors and maestros can command high salaries, sometimes in excess of $1 million, such income is determined by market negotiation, not strike threat. Panero asks, “Could another prop master do O’Connell’s job just as well, and for less pay?” It’s a question more New Yorkers in the arts community should be asking, and not just of prop masters, lest more positions be eliminated or salaries be cut. “Arts leaders, who need to start controlling costs at all levels, also need the backbone to stare down the threat of a Local One strike,” the author concludes. “And if negotiations break down in the future, the arts community must overcome its willingness to cross picket lines for a justified cause that will help all workers.” That sounds like a plan.