Thursday, October 25, 2007

Swiftboating On Broadway

Regularly, in discussing the contract dispute with my fellow stagehands, I’m always startled when they complain of what they view as the lies being put out by the League of American Theatres and Producers. I respond by saying that if this is how your story is being reported in the mainstream press, a story that you know more intimately than any casual reader, imagine that this is happening with every story that they read in the press. The supposed facts are being twisted and the Local One is being cast in the worst possible light. Now imagine someone in each story is being demonized for the benefit of someone else’s purpose.

In today’s parlance it’s called “swift boating”.

After a political group attacked John Kerry’s military record and evoked the turmoil of the Viet Nam war era by using carefully chosen words and phrases designed to cast him in the worst possible way, Kerry’s campaign was over. The mainstream media simply went along because they had been cowed with a similar campaign painting them as having a “liberal bias.” Now, instead of having reporters skeptically asking their sources if the information is true, the vast majority of reporters will passively accept what is given them and pass it along as information. I worked for the better part of a decade at a major television network and saw this process from the inside.

Anyone who has seen their job “outsourced” or “downsized” or tried to preserve their benefits, will recognize the public relations playbook being used by the League. The carefully constructed phases have been tested in focus groups to create powerful negative images. They have dragged out “featherbedding”. They have used “archaic work rules”, “most highly paid”, “fair and balanced”, “at this critical time”, “no work, no pay”, “pay even more people to do nothing”, “hire people who don't do work”, “fair work practices”, “people who don't do work” and more. Bearing little resemblance to the actual facts, these phrases evoke a workplace of big-bellied white guys with their knuckles dragging on the floor that are keeping the poor investors from getting a good return on their money. Not a word is spoken of the skill it takes to create the illusion that is theatre eight shows a week. Nor any reference to the endurance of working eight to midnights for weeks at a time in order to get the show ready for first preview. Not a word is spoken about the time away from the family or working nights, weekends and holidays to get the show on.

But we in IATSE knew that these are the work conditions when we went into this business. We’ve adapted and embraced technology that reduces manpower but creates better illusions the audience demands. Many of these same work rules have been agreed to over the years because both sides recognized that this was a unique business that attracted a unique cast of characters.

What’s forgotten in the demonizing is that in the days following September 11th, when there was smoke still hanging in the air and Times Square was empty, this Local took a 25% pay cut in order to keep shows running. Now with the houses full and every house booked the League of American Theatres and Producers wants us to take a permanent 38% pay cut.

Now I know how Max Cleland felt.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New Rules

So the "new rules" have been implemented and the world as we stagehands know it has not stopped spinning on it's axis. From what I've seen they're more about petulance than productivity. The guy who mops gets a cut in pay for an hour. The crews can't leave until checking with Stage Management to find out if there is "something broken". The provided lunch may consist of cold pizza. In some houses, the stagehands have to stay until the end of their call no matter how long the show has been over. "Post show work, don't need it to make you stay. Stay here until I tell you to go."

Here's Playbills article about the newly imposed work rules. Read this and decide if any of this is worth going to war over.

Anyone who has been involved with "downsizing" is familiar with the routine. Some MBA decides that the old rules are "archaic" and "inefficient" and sets about letting the market decide what's the best, new, modern way to run things. In what Joseph Schumpeter, in 1942, described as "creative destruction" a brilliant entrepreneur introduces innovation and casts aside the former giants because this will cause innovation and economic development, or as least as it is taught at Wharton and Harvard Business School. Jack Welsh, a demigod in the today's business pantheon, once said that, if he had his way, all the GE factories would be put on rafts and floated to where ever labor was cheapest. You see it's for the benefit of the investor. A modern company doesn't exist to sell products or be part of the community. It exists in order to return a profit for the investor. The investor is the key component here, the raison d'être. Kissinger used this term in one of his books to describe Cardinal Richelieu’s foreign policy in which a State acts solely in its own best interests. Here the Corporation does the same. Richelieu didn’t think the state was comprised of its people but rather of its leaders. Today the Corporation does the same.

The League of American Theatres and Producers has its raison d'être. Not to assist in creating art but to sell tickets. To sell tickets quickly in order to return profit sooner to the investors. The New Broadway Order will stop at nothing in order to accomplish this. So get used to this. The Theatrical Syndicate maintained a chokehold on this industry until the Shubert Brothers used some creative destruction to stop them. Now it’s going to be used on the Shuberts and on the working people who have benefited from the rather comfortable system the Theatre Owners have set up. The other IATSE Theatrical Locals will be next. Then Equity. And then they will turn on the Theatre Owners.

Après moi le deluge.