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Two strikes, old school and new

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NEW YORK -- Two picket lines, two very different strikes.

In a pelting rain, members of the Writers Guild of America marched this week in front of Viacom's Manhattan headquarters. Around the corner, stagehands were picketing in front of darkened theaters where "Spamalot" and other hit shows in the busy heart of Times Square normally would be packed with customers.

The novelty of simultaneous strikes has attracted intense media attention here. Both have crippled key segments of the American entertainment world, and both are driven by fierce rhetoric. But in another sense they couldn't be more different: One strike focuses on an uncertain future, the other on jobs negotiated in the past.

"They really are totally different situations," said labor and entertainment attorney Barry Peek, a partner in Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein, who has represented labor clients for 25 years. "The writers strike is about a whole new medium, the world of digital entertainment and content, and how it's going to be valued in the future. The Broadway strike is more traditional: It's about producers who want to cut costs and a union that wants to protect jobs."

Those differences were on display this week as the two sides in both strikes dug in their heels. Although there is a glimmer of hope that the Broadway strike might end before the Thanksgiving holidays -- both sides are scheduled to get back to the bargaining table this morning -- the writers impasse showed no signs of ending any time soon. The mood on both picket lines was grim.

As they marched in a barricaded pen outside Viacom, writers quietly handed out leaflets to passersby and raised fists as motorists in Times Square honked in solidarity. Rob Kutner, the strike captain and a five-year veteran of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," tried to find a bright spot amid the gloomy weather: The strike has brought writers together who might never have met one another, he said. Recently, he and other "Daily Show" scribes met their counterparts at "The Colbert Report" for the first time. On Wednesday night, Stewart treated his writers to dinner at Katz's Deli -- made famous by Meg Ryan's fake orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally."

"I'll have what he's earning," cracked Kutner, recalling the dinner with Stewart. But then he got more serious, describing what the strike was all about: "The entertainment industry says this is a transforming moment for the business, and they're right. All we're saying is that we want to be part of that transformation too.

"This is a dispute between content providers and content distributors," Kutner added, referring to payments writers want for material that is downloaded onto cellphones, streamed through the Internet and the like. "Everybody in the entertainment world wants more eyeballs on the screen. But nobody really knows what this world is going to look like when the strike is finally over."

The Broadway strike between stagehands -- represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees -- and the League of American Theaters and Producers is no less acrimonious. But it doesn't hold out the prospect of sweeping change like the writers' clash with TV and movie producers. Once the conflict is settled, the Great White Way should get back to business as usual.

Indeed, the stagehands strike by Local 1 is an old-fashioned labor dust-up, with both sides expected to find common ground after throwing verbal jabs at each other. The key issue is how many stagehands are needed to staff Broadway shows: When a show is moving into a theater, for example, a producer might need 30 stagehands. All of them must be at the theater for the entire period -- even if work needs vary from day to day, according to the former contract. The two sides have tried, but so far failed, to negotiate a smaller, fixed number of stagehands required to be present. The League has said the number required by the contract is way too high, amounting to featherbedding; Local 1 says those numbers are needed for safety on the theater set and that it will not give back hard-won job security and other benefits for its more than 3,000 members.

The lingering question, however, is not if but when the Broadway strike will end. In less than a week, the Nov. 10 walkout has taken a toll: 27 productions have been temporarily shut down; regular paychecks for thousands of stagehands, actors and other professionals have been halted; restaurants have lost business; and the city overall is losing an estimated $17 million a day, according to statistics released last week by the League.

"Although this is a private strike, it has dramatic public impact," said Anthony Haller, a labor attorney with Blank, Rome LLP. "There's pressure on both sides to settle, and I'd have expected that we'd have seen some movement by the middle of this week."

Despite the often grim mood on picket lines, there have been occasional moments of humor and camaraderie. Chazz Palminteri, who recently opened his one-man show "A Bronx Tale," appeared with picketers and performed some riffs from the production. Actors and actresses from other shows have also shown up to express support.

Many observers are betting that the resumption of talks this weekend could signal an end to the strike. A key development will be the presence of Robert W. Johnson, a veteran labor relations official with Disney who helped arrange the new talks and is respected by both sides. Although Disney's theatrical division is not a member of the League, its productions of "The Lion King" and the soon-to-open "Little Mermaid" have been affected by the walkout.

But there is no guarantee the strike will be settled.

As members of Local 1 marched on a street normally packed with customers, picketers weren't talking about digital eyeballs or content providers. In fact, nobody was talking at all. Local 1 officials said that picketers could not talk with the media, asking that all requests for comment be referred to strike headquarters.

Both sides announced Wednesday that they would have no comments before talks resume.

For many stagehands, the overriding issue is respect: They were infuriated when League officials noted that stagehands, with an average salary of $150,000, are not exactly struggling blue-collar workers. Immediately, some picketers began handing out leaflets noting that -- unlike producers -- they weren't fighting to preserve their second and third homes but the one they had.

"They keep saying basically that we're thieves," said union chief James Claffey, stressing that his members work for a living like anyone else. "We are not going back to the table with that lack of respect. . . . We cannot negotiate under those circumstances."

Now that both sides have said they're resuming talks, stagehands offered mixed views about the likely result.

"Sure they'll be talking. With four-letter words," cracked one.

"At least they're talking," said another. "It's better than nothing."

josh.getlin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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