Broadway Unions Form Coalition

Taking cues from the corporate media-merger blitz and also returning to the roots of solidarity through organizing, 13 of Broadway's labor organizations have formed the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds (COBUG).

The coalition, representing 75,000 union members, covers the spectrum of laborers involved in Main Stem production from actors, musicians, playwrights, directors and choreographers to set, costume and lighting designers, stagehands, ushers and ticket-takers, box-office personnel, wardrobe, hairstylists, porters, press agents and company managers.

The unions involved include Actors' Equity Association (AEA); the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 (AFM); the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC); the Dramatists Guild, and a coterie of seven unions under the flagship of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, International (IATSE).

Co-chairs of the coalition are Anthony DePaulo, business manager for IATSE Local 1, Stagehands, and Alan Eisenberg, executive director of Actors' Equity. COBUG has authorized DePaulo and Eisenberg to set up introductory meetings with representatives from the League of American Theatres and Producers, the industry's main employer group. Future meetings with non-league employers are planned as well, according to the coalition.

The coalition has shaped what the co-chairs call "a broad spectrum of interests and a shared, progressive agenda," which will "make our collective voice and concerns heard by employers, public officials and the theatre-going public." Besides the more altruistic goals of advocating public policy and forming positive community relationships, the agenda also includes substantive economic issues that directly affect the Broadway labor force: collective bargaining with shared employers; addressing health care and workplace-safety issues, and assessing the impact of new media and computerized technologies on live theatre.

DePaulo and Eisenberg both spoke to Back Stage on Monday, with DePaulo saying that the coalition would be an important "political voice." Eisenberg added that the group's forming was also important for "sharing information and learning from each other."

As far as collective-bargaining issues, Eisenberg said, "Collective bargaining will still be done on an individual basis," while meetings with the league will cover "issues that cut across jurisdictions of all the unions. For example, when we met with the league last week, we discussed security issues including evacuation plans, and inspection of parcels and briefcases of persons going into the theatre."

The coalition met with the league's labor committee, and Eisenberg said the league's response was "positive and exceptionally well attended" by both theatre managers and coalition members. DePaulo and Eisenberg foresee future meetings with the league, but have set no specific dates.

Regarding health care and workplace-safety matters, DePaulo said, "We want to rally members behind specific issues, such as COBRA." COBRA is the acronym for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. Under COBRA, if an employee resigns or is terminated from work, federal law guarantees the worker's right to continue the former employer's group plan as individual or family health-care coverage for up to 18 months at the worker's own expense.

DePaulo noted that during the last session of the New York State legislature, the unions began an effort to urge Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to bring COBRA legislation to the Senate floor for a vote. That didn't happen. But the legislation, which did pass the state Assembly last session, will be back before the new legislative session that began this month. Eisenberg added that the unions have been working with the Actors' Fund on the legislation, and will meet this week with the drug companies' legislative representative to talk of forming a united front in support of the COBRA legislation, which has been re-introduced in the new Assembly session as A498. At press time, no one had introduced the bill in the Senate.

DePaulo said the coalition didn't present any specific proposals on safety in its meeting with the league, but he said they did discuss general safety in order to heighten the theatre managers' consciousness of the issue.

Asked if the coalition would become involved in the touring issue, Eisenberg said he didn't believe so "at this time," adding that most of the coalition members were presently concerned with Broadway. DePaulo said he couldn't speak to the touring issue because he's the local representative for IATSE.

Equity over the last year has become consistently vocal in its concern about losing portions of the national market to non-union tours. In recent months it has publicly pushed its position, an obvious effort to make clear to its members that union leaders are dedicated to protecting jobs on the road.

Heather Beaudoin, public realtions director at the AFM local, said her union was "very excited" about the formation of COBUG. "The unions on Broadway have a common interest," Beaudoin explained. "We believe in the need to advocate and support each other. We hope COBUG is going to be that avenue. There is strength in numbers; and a lot more can be accomplished as a group than you can accomplish individually. That's one of the principles of the labor movement."

Beaudoin pointed out that unions have cooperated in the past, noting the AFM and Equity collaboration that led to improvements in smoke-and-fog safety on Broadway stages. Also, the musicians will open new contract talks with the league on Feb. 4. The present pact expires March 2. Beaudoin indicated that the unions' sharing information on collective bargaining should help the AFM as it moves into its talks with the league.

The league hadn't returned Back Stage's calls by press time.