An agreement has officially been reached between the producers of Spiegelworld's "Empire New York" tent show and four New York stage unions, after members and supporters of Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) gathered last week in midtown Manhattan to protest the use of nonunion lighting and audio technicians on the show.
Local One president James J. Claffey met with union membership on Friday, May 18, to plan a picket line in front of the Spiegelworld tent entrance on West 45th Street. The demonstration began Tuesday, May 22, the same day that "Empire" began previews.
But IATSE spokesman Bruce Cohen told Back Stage that after striking a tentative truce to shut down the picket line on Friday, May 25, an agreement was reached Tuesday, May 29 between Foster Mollison Entertainment and the unions on the picket line: IATSE Local One; the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA); IATSE Local 751, which represents box office treasurers and ticket sellers; and Theatrical Teamsters Local 817, whose members load and unload sets and equipment in and out of theaters.
"The American Guild of Variety Artists is very pleased to announce that along with IATSE Local One and Theatrical Teamsters L.U. #817, we have reached a unified and satisfactory agreement for the production of Empire," the union said in a statement May 30. "We are very grateful to all of our sister unions for their support and encouragement during this process and see this is an important victory in upholding the standards and conditions for which we all work so diligently. AGVA would like to welcome 'Empire' to the professional New York theatrical community and we wish them a successful run in the heart of Broadway."
As of last week, it seemed unlikely that the producers would be swayed to hire union stagehands for the production. "This is not a Broadway show, the tent is not a Broadway house, and we don't charge Broadway prices," "Empire" producers Ross Mollison and David J. Foster said in a statement May 22.
But all four unions and the Spiegelworld producers signed and returned contracts that will result in the hiring of two union stagehands for "Empire." Had the contracts not been returned by the end of the day May 29, Cohen said, the picketers intended to resume their protest that night in front of "Empire," which is scheduled to open Thursday, May 31.
Spiegelworld has hired nonunion laborers when it pitched its tent in New York before, at the South Street Seaport, but Cohen said that its current location in a vacant lot near Times Square "galvanized" union members to protest in the interest of maintaining the union's strength for future productions in the neighborhood.
"Local One IATSE can't stand by while a nonunion entertainment operation pitches its tent, even temporarily, in the heart of the Broadway theater district, the working home of thousands of entertainment professionals," Claffey said in a statement last week. "Though the number of Local One IATSE jobs we're talking about are no more than a handful of jobs, we will exercise all our legal rights to ensure these employees have union rights and protections."
Actors' Equity Association also offered its support of the protest in a prepared statement May 22. "Actors' Equity Association urges Foster Mollison Entertainment to bargain in good faith with our sister unions, including AGVA and Local One IATSE, to achieve a fair and equitable contract for Spiegelworld 'Empire New York' as it begins its run in the heart of the Broadway theater district. Actors’ Equity firmly believes that our sister unions should be represented at this production."
The 126-year-old Local One IATSE represents 3,100 stage and studio electricians, set carpenters, sound designers, audio technicians, moving-light operators, riggers, and special effects people in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, Westchester, and Rockland. Local One members construct, install, maintain, and operate the lighting, sound equipment, scenery, and special effects for Broadway shows; concerts at Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, and Carnegie Hall; productions at The Metropolitan Opera and throughout Lincoln Center; and entertainment and news broadcasts from CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and PBS.
Daniel Lehman is a staff writer at Back Stage. Follow him on Twitter: @byDanLehman