Giant Union Rat Makes Debut at Suzanne Roberts Theatre [UPDATED]

The stagehands are striking!

The inflatable union rat has reared its ugly head again. This time, the rat is standing (well wobbling, really) at the corner of Broad and Lombard streets in front of Suzanne Roberts Theatre, home to Philadelphia Theatre Company, which was supposed to sneak preview its new Martin Luther King-based show The Mountaintop tonight. Except that’s not going to happen. (Note that tickets to the official opening next Wednesday are priced at $59.)

The members of the IATSE Local 8 Stagehands Union are striking. I’ll let them explain by way of their handbill, which invokes the great Martin Luther King, Jr. (and which appears here unedited):

April 4, marks the 44th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., where he’d gone to support a strike by black sanitation workers. In talking with the strikers, King suggested they are “going beyond purely civil rights questions to questions of human rights” by raising “the economic issue”. People should have the right not only to sit at a lunch counter, but also the right to afford a hamburger, he told the audience.

Today, the workers at the Philadelphia Theater Company are walking in the path laid down by Martin Luther King Jr. in their attempt to get a fair contract. The Philadelphia Theater Company has decided to hire strike breakers and scabs to do the work of these people rather than agree to a fair deal.

The PTC is currently producing “The Mountaintop”, a show centered on the activities that occurred the last night of MLK’s life following the historic landmark speech he gave in defense of worker’s rights.

The PTC workers ask you to boycott the Philadelphia Theater Company and join us to live the experience of fighting for economic issues involving workers.

“This is a first time contract for what were previously unrepresented workers,” Local 8 Business Agent Mike Barnes told me. “We started negotiating in September. We’ve experienced delay tactics and proposals that broke down last night at 3:00am. We’re looking to establish benefits for workers that are comparable to what other workers receive at Philadelphia Theatre Company. We believe the finances to accomplish this exist, based on what they pay the management side of the theater. We’re looking for wage increases. Many have not seen increases in salaries for years, and some of these people regularly work 12 or 16 hour days. They don’t get [holiday] pay when they work on holidays, while many employees of Philadelphia Theatre Company get paid to not work on holidays. These are some of the lowest paid workers in the theater.”

I called PTC Managing Director Shira Beckerman to get the theater’s side of the story. “Why do you have my cell phone number?” she asked. “Is it a matter of public record?” I explained that her cell phone number is included on the union’s handbill, which they are handing out to passersby on the busy street.

She emailed me the following statement:

Philadelphia Theatre Company is a small non-profit group that is working to meet the financial challenges it faces in a tough economy, just like many non-profit arts organizations in our region. The Company’s stagehand employees voted in September to become members of IATSE Local 8 which did nothing to change these facts or address the challenges we face. PTC and the Union negotiated an interim labor agreement in October. Since the agreement’s expiration in late November, members of the PTC management team have been in negotiations with representatives of the union on an ongoing basis. PTC is eager to complete negotiations as soon as possible and expects all performances and theatrical events to proceed as scheduled. We remain focused on the goal of working together to ensure the future success of our Company.

From what I hear, the theater had been scrambling all day to find replacements for the stagehands, which include light and sound technicians and scenery and props personnel, but no one was willing to cross the picket line. As a result, tonight’s preview has been canceled. The next preview is scheduled for Friday.

I asked Barnes if he thought the matter would be resolved by opening night. “We’re here until this is over,” he replied. “And there is no end in sight.”

UPDATE 1/17/2013 8:20 p.m.:

On day two of the strike, the theater has been forced to cancel tonight’s open dress rehearsal “due to unforeseen technical circumstances”, as indicated by the sign on the door (photo below). PTC continues to sell seats for this weekend’s previews, and it’s unclear whether the strike would affect Monday’s film screening with mayoral candidate-turned-documentarian Sam Katz. The union says they are ready to talk but claims that the theater refuses to meet until Monday. Local 8 has scheduled a press conference for tomorrow at noon in front of the theater.

According to a PTC source, PTC management told the design team and director of The Mountaintop that the theater would reach out to stagehands from New York and Delaware. As of 7:00 p.m., I’m told, the design and creative teams have walked out. Meanwhile, Mountaintop director Patricia McGregor brought the picketers donuts for breakfast this morning. Alas, they were not Federal Donuts. Dunkin’: donuts for the everyman.

PTC Managing Director Shira Beckerman was not immediately available for comment.

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