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Broadway averts strike action but threat to Manhattan’s economic engine remains

The strike would mean the cancellation of 45 theater shows and tours in the US and Canada in a blow to New York, whose post-pandemic economy depends heavily on the sector

Broadway
Lineups for the first performance of the musical 'Hamilton' after the reopening of Broadway, in September 2021.EDUARDO MUNOZ (Reuters)

The U.S. show business industry appears to have averted another strike after the Broadway League and Disney Theatrical Productions, which represent producers, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, announced Thursday they had reached a tentative agreement that had threatened a stoppage as early as Friday. The threat of downing tools on Broadway is unconnected to the movie and television dispute roiling Hollywood. Leaders of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) voted unanimously last week to strike, joining the Writers Guild of America, who walked out on May 2.

About 1,500 workers — stagehands, hair and makeup artists, and wardrobe personnel — are directly covered by the tentative agreement, currently working on 28 productions on Broadway and 17 on tour in the U.S. and Canada. The agreement still needs to be ratified, with CNN reporting that the vote will be held Friday. In a joint statement, the bargainers said: “The respective parties will inform their members of the details of this agreement in the coming days.”

“This strike vote will send a strong message [to employers]: we will not accept inferior contracts that do not recognize the contributions of our workers,” said Matthew Loeb, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), told CNN. “We will not back down unless we have an agreement that members can accept before the end of the week.” The Broadway League and Disney Theatrical, the two major groups representing employers, have not commented.

Broadway is one of New York’s economic engines, a symbol of life and activity in the city whose closure in the early stages of the pandemic caused billions of dollars in losses. Today it is also the sector that is chiefly responsible, economically speaking, for boosting Manhattan’s income, where the consequences of telecommuting for much of the workweek are being felt and whose offices stand at around 50% occupancy compared to 2020. The theatrical heart of the world and a magnet for tourism, Broadway has this year regained its pre-pandemic attendance levels, 2022-2023 being the first full season since the coronavirus crisis, according to Broadway League data released in May.

A total of 88.4% of Broadway show seats were filled in the 2022-2023 season, a figure on par with the 89.7% recorded in 2018-2019, the last full season before the pandemic. During the fiscal year that ended in May, Broadway shows were watched by 12.3 million spectators and grossed $1.6 billion in ticket sales.

However, the wave of strikes sweeping the U.S. in recent years now threatens the neon geography of Broadway. Among the workers’ demands are higher wages and reasonable weekly and daily rest periods. Unions and employers have already reached a tentative agreement to protect company-provided health care without cuts or increased costs to the beneficiary, and to guarantee company-provided lodging for touring crews.

There will be no matinee performances on Broadway on Friday, giving negotiators a day and a half’s leeway, until a Friday night deadline, to reach an agreement in extremis. It is rare for a strike vote to be held hours before it slated to begin, which suggests that the threat of a walkout is consistent. “We need to show strength and unity to achieve the wages, benefits and rights that all IATSE members have earned and deserve,” said an email sent to union members, cited by CNN.

The indefinite strike by 160,000 actors represented by SAG-AFTRA and the 11,000 members of the Screenwriters Guild of America against major movie studios and streaming platforms has halted production and filming of movies and TV shows across the country, leaving only New York sets active. Even if Broadway actors, who are also unionized, do not go on strike, the IATSE walkout would bring the curtain down on the industry.

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