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Theater stagehands in Philadelphia on strike

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Theater stagehands in Philadelphia have gone on strike, forcing three theaters to close and all of Saturday's shows to be canceled.

A contract between the Kimmel Center and the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees expired at midnight and the workers 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 announced the walkout Saturday morning, saying early talks with all four units ended without a deal and the stagehands were going on strike. They also announced all Saturday shows had been canceled.

Frank Keel, a spokesman for the stagehands' union, said bargaining talks resumed at about 8 a.m. Saturday.

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.

Keel 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."

The Kimmel Center had already rescheduled Saturday's concert by singer Audra McDonald for Nov. 30.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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