Striking Philly stagehands end daylong strike

PHILADELPHIA - October 1, 2011

Members of the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees went on strike after their contract expired at midnight Friday and bargaining talks with the Kimmel Center 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.

Union business agent Michael Barnes announced outside the center Saturday evening that the union had agreed to return to work, with the two sides meeting next week to resolve remaining issues. All Saturday events had been canceled, and the Kimmel Center had already rescheduled the evening's slated concert by singer Audra McDonald for Nov. 30.

Barnes told a few dozen striking members outside the center to put away their signs but assured that the union would continue to demand increases in wages and benefits, improvement in working conditions and protection and expansion of their jurisdiction.

"We will not agree to anything less than those four demands," he told cheering members. "We are serious in our demands, and we're not backing off."

Thor Steingraber, senior vice president of the Kimmel Center, said officials were very pleased that the opera could go on as scheduled.

"We're looking forward to resuming talks next week," he said. "This is an important crossroads for the Kimmel Center and for all arts organizations in Philadelphia."

Union members have been seeking better wages and benefits, but Kimmel Center officials have said money is tight, citing the weak economy and bankruptcy filing by their biggest tenant, the Philadelphia Orchestra. Kimmel Center President and CEO Anne Ewers said earlier in a statement that she was disappointed by the walkout, which she said "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. The orchestra owes $1.4 million, she said.

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 also 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.

Michael Durkin, 50, of Philadelphia was one of about two dozen people picketing earlier in the day outside the center.

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


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