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Nation

Doom and gloom plays out on Broadway

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's a worst-case scenario that became a reality. As the Broadway stagehands strike enters its third week today, there doesn't seem to be any way out of the thorny, seemingly intractable dispute that has shut down more than two dozen plays and musicals since Nov. 10.

Losses because of canceled performances are in the millions and climbing each day - a disaster not only for producers and theater owners, but for everyone employed in the theater and for those whose businesses depend on curtains going up.

Both sides are hanging tough and have not talked for almost a week. The standoff has meant dark theaters during the Thanksgiving holiday, usually one of the year's best weeks for business.

Not this year. There was a weird disconnect in the Times Square area during the holiday. On Thanksgiving Eve, side streets were filled with lively, noisy crowds. They were in stark contrast to the silent pickets walking slowly in front of padlocked theaters that looked forlorn even with lighted marquees.

Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees says it's willing to meet again with the League of American Theatres and Producers. But the league says it won't go back to the bargaining table unless the union is ready to make a deal.

And none is in sight.

A settlement was believed in the works last Sunday after a marathon weekend of negotiating. But the talks ended abruptly when the producers informed union president James J. Claffey Jr. that what the local had offered was not enough.

The complicated contract dispute has focused on how many stagehands are required to open a Broadway show and keep it running. That means moving scenery, lights, sound systems and props into the theater; installing the set and making sure it works; and keeping everything functioning well for the life of the production.

The producers want a flexible number; the union more specificity, including ample compensation for any concessions made.

Claffey, a second-generation stagehand, is a quiet, unfailingly polite man, but with a fierce commitment to his union, which has never in its more than 100-year history struck Broadway. At a somber union news conference on the Sunday after the strike first started, he spoke of the need for respect.

"We want respect at the table," he said. "If there's no respect, they will not see Local 1 at the table. The lack of respect is something we are not going to deal with."

On the league side of the table sits Bernard Plum of Proskauer Rose, a high-powered law firm with long experience in labor battles. Plum is a tough negotiator, too, something younger, more militant members of the league want in their confrontation with the union.

The talks, from all reports, have been businesslike, with only an occasional flaring of tempers. Yet both sides seem more adept at preparing for a strike than in negotiating their way out of one.

The producers set up a $20 million strike emergency fund, taking a couple cents out of each ticket sold over the last several years to pay for it. The money would help struck shows struggling with the costs of a shutdown.

The union, too, has its own fund - benefits of more than $4.1 million for its members as well as another $1 million allotted for members of other unions affected by the walkout.

And if an agreement isn't reached before Christmas, both parties may end up using every penny.

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