Philadelphia Theater Company workers' strike continuing

Union member Edward Barnes protests outside the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theater.
Union member Edward Barnes protests outside the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theater. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 25, 2013

Scenes from a strike:

A nighttime projectionist set up in the middle of Broad Street, beaming antimanagement messages onto a building. Protesters with strike placards facing the plateglass windows of a theater lobby while staring down audience members inside. A labor dispute in which both sides appropriate the messages of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Philadelphia may be used to strikes at construction sites and outside corporate headquarters, but this one is different. For one thing, the workers in question have already resigned themselves to an almost comical raise: an additional $1.50 per hour spread over three years.

It's more complicated than that, of course, which is why the strike by stagehands at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which earlier looked like a tidy one-act labor dispute, has gone on for a week now.

On Wednesday it intensified, as about 100 strikers and supporters marched from City Hall to the theater at Broad and Lombard Street. They say they will picket businesses of PTC board members and are demanding the board's resignation. No talks are scheduled.

The strike has disrupted the run of The Mountaintop, Katori Hall's imaginary account of the hours just before King's 1968 martyrdom at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Saturday's first preview performance at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre was canceled, and subsequent shows have used vastly scaled-back stagecraft, sound, and lighting. In the play's moment of reveal, when King's motel room should rotate on a turntable to show him on the motel balcony, the set stands still while an actress reads stage directions aloud to let the audience know what it is supposed to see and hear.

"Thunder and lightning crack," she says. "Blackout. End of play."

What is lost by the diminished audio and visuals was hard to gauge for Tuesday's audience, but A. Zell Williams, a playwright, said he didn't find the experience lessened.

"What it does show is that the play is really powerful, and it highlights that Katori Hall has an amazing voice," he said.

Others declined to find out. Ruth Rovner, a retired college English teacher, had tickets for Thursday but said she would not cross a picket line. "I believe strongly in the rights of workers to strike lawfully, whether college teachers or stagehands. And a strike isn't successful if picket lines are violated."

Management has asked critics not to review the show until the strike has ended with stagecraft restored. Until then, the theater is charging a flat $46 per ticket. Absent the strike, tickets would have been priced between $25 and $59, said managing director Shira Beckerman. She said patrons were free to exchange tickets for another night or to get a refund.

A few audience members Tuesday said it had not occurred to them that they had crossed a picket line, despite the strikers and the standard effigy of management perched outside - a large inflated rat.

The collective bargaining agreement would be a first for stagehands at PTC. The 27 part-time and full-time workers have several goals, said Michael Barnes, business agent for Local 8 of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees: They want a contract commitment to rights and conditions they enjoyed before organizing, and they want management to contribute about $4,000 annually per employee to a health and welfare fund.

After giving up on a proposed raise to $29 per hour from the current $16 to $19, the union has settled (though nothing is official) for a proposal on the table that calls for a raise of 25 cents per hour in the contract's first year, 50 cents in the second, and 75 cents in the third.

Most important, Barnes said, is getting PTC to agree not to hire nonunion workers to perform the same work as the recently organized unit.

PTC leaders, while declining to comment on specific aspects of the talks, said the union had been offered "across the board" increases. "We believe we have been fair and our offers will result in an improvement to union members," said board president Priscilla M. Luce.

PTC stagehands make less than those at larger theaters, such as the Academy of Music, said Barnes and others, and are comfortable with that of PTC's size. What their $16 to $19 an hour amounts to annually depends on the individual wage and how many shows a stagehand works, but it's between $10,000 and $40,000, he said.

"But the majority make between $10,000 and $20,000," he said. "They piece together a full-time job working for multiple employers." Each of PTC's four shows this season runs about a month, with additional work for rehearsals.

"We still love this company and believe in the work we do, and none of us is asking PTC to pay our full-time way," said production electrician Terry M. Smith, 33, who has worked for PTC for 12 years. He says he makes an average of $16,000 a year at PTC, about a fifth of an income he patches together from corporate meetings, car shows and conventions.

Said Barnes: "The tone of negotiations has been clear - the PTC board is [angry] that the workers voted to be represented by the union. So proposals are punitive in nature."

Luce said there had been "no emotion" attached to negotiations on the board's part. It "accepts the vote of the employees" to unionize, "and we have proceeded in negotiations in a manner that is professional."


Contact Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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