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Theater stagehands in Philadelphia go on strike

- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2011

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Theater stagehands and other workers at three Philadelphia venues have gone on strike, prompting three theaters to cancel all Saturday shows.

A contract between the Kimmel Center and the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees expired at midnight Friday and the employees went on strike after bargaining failed to produce a new deal. The contract covers about 1,000 stagehands, ushers, wardrobe workers and box office staff at the Kimmel Center, the Merriam Theater and the Academy of Music.

Kimmel Center officials who announced the walkout said early talks with all four units ended without a deal. They also said all Saturday shows had been canceled. The Kimmel Center had already rescheduled Saturday's concert by singer Audra McDonald for Nov. 30.

"We no longer feel that we should be bearing the brunt of the excessive costs that it takes to manage this facility and maintain this structure," union business agent Michael Barnes said outside the Kimmel Center on Saturday. Barnes said, however, that management had given his group what he called "the first significant counterproposal" just before midnight, and union officials were examining it and hoped to work out other issues during a bargaining session Saturday afternoon.

Union members have been seeking better wages and benefits, but Kimmel Center officials said money is tight, citing the weak economy and the bankruptcy filing by their biggest tenant, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Kimmel Center President and CEO Anne Ewers said in a statement she's disappointed the workers decided to strike and that the work action "makes the financial pressures worse."

"This contract expiration comes at a grave hour in Philadelphia's performing arts community," Ewers said. "The bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra illustrates that fact wrenchingly."

Ewers said the orchestra bankruptcy already has had effects on the Kimmel Center. She says the orchestra owes $1.4 million.

Frank Keel, a spokesman for the stagehands' union, said the Kimmel Center had not only refused to give stagehands "nominal" wage and benefit increases but was seeking concessions from the union, which prompted the walkout. He said the center was calling for sacrifices despite what he called a "bloated highly paid management structure."

"It won't be difficult to see where Kimmel management can find the cost savings to pay their union labor living wages with decent benefits," he said in a statement.

Ewers said the Kimmel Center has been making difficult cuts, including reduced program offerings and cutting staff positions and salaries to save $1.5 million over the past two years. In addition, she said, management employees have gone without salary increases and pension contributions.

"This negotiation cannot simply be about what a union wants," Ewers said. "It is about what the performing arts community can bear at a difficult time. We will be fair, but we cannot `buy peace' by agreeing to terms that ignore the issues of the day or the context of our times."

Barnes said management negotiators appeared to have backed off a demand that could have allowed non-union workers to handle many center functions. He said the union was also seeking parity between stagehands and lower-paid ushers and wardrobe workers, who he said included disproportionately higher numbers of women, minorities and lesbian and gay workers.

Michael Durkin, 50, of Philadelphia, was one of about two dozen people picketing outside the Kimmel Center on Saturday afternoon.

"I just want us all to get along well and do our jobs and produce great theater and arts," said Durkin, who said he has been a stagehand on and off since 1983. "We're just people with families, and by and large we're very skilled, very dedicated craftspeople."

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