Kimmel Center strike is off - but for how long?

This is scheduled to appear in Sunday's print edition of the Inquirer.

The giant rat has been deflated. Extra security has gone home. And after an 18-hour strike by workers at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the shows will go on today.

The giant rat flashes strike signs while Carmen flaps in the wind in front of the Kimmel Center Saturday afternoon. Peter Dobrin/Inquirer staff

Leaders of the Kimmel and local 8 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees penned a deal Saturday putting a strike on hiatus. After talks failed to produce a new labor deal for stagehands, ushers, wardrobe and box office workers, the two sides decided to spend the next week in a “cooling off” period.

Enduring labor peace is far from assured. Negotiations are expected to be taken up again no sooner than Oct. 10, and if a contract isn’t reached then, performances at the Verizon Hall, Perelman Theater and Innovation Studio, as well as the Academy of Music and Merriam Theater, will once again be in jeopardy.

Four performances Saturday were canceled, and another, with singer Audra McDonald, postponed.

Leaders from both sides agree that talks were not moving in the right direction when they broke off Saturday at about 2:30 a.m. IATSE local 8 business agent Michael Barnes admitted that the counter-proposal submitted to the Kimmel was a “poke in the eye” – a response, he said, to the fact that a substantive proposal from the Kimmel first came across the negotiating table at about 11:50 Friday night – ten minutes before the current labor contract was set to expire.

“We covered a lot of ground, and I was very surprised by their last proposal,” said Ewers. “I think the cooling off period is good. It will give everyone a chance to take a deep breath.”

But the main impetus for a week of labor peace is that it gives the Opera Company of Philadelphia a chance to complete at least most of its run of Carmen - a strong seller that the opera says is as important to its finances as The Nutcracker is to ballet troupes. All but one performance of Carmen is protected by the strike hiatus.

“There will be no picketing, no demonstrations, no animosity. It will be business as usual,” said a relieved David Devan, the opera company’s general director.

If the opera’s entire run of Carmen had been canceled, it would have meant “a substantial blow to this company,” resulting in a loss of just under $2 million on the troupe’s $10 million annual budget, said Devan. It could have led to cancellation of all of the opera’s Academy of Music performances this season, he said.

If calling for an intermission to a strike is unusual, so was the brief strike itself. Box office staff represented by IATSE reported to work as usual Saturday morning, angering picketers who had arrived in front of the Kimmel with signs and an enormous rat.

One stagehand, after being asked to rephrase his initial response with words that could be used in a family newspaper, said:

“They shouldn't be in there. I hope they never need our support," said the stagehand, who would only identify himself as Frank. A Kimmel administrator said the box office personnel would join the strike at noon, but they didn't. They were still in their posts - with few or no customers in sight - as of early afternoon.

It was also unclear whether ushers and wardrobe personnel were, technically speaking, on strike. The union claimed their participation, but Kimmel and Opera Company leaders were less sure. The debate was academic. They only report to work when there are shows, and if there are no shows, who could tell whether they were on strike?

Many Kimmel employees are, similarly, part-timers. One stagehand, who declined to provide a name, said his income had dropped three-quarters since the Kimmel Center had taken over management of the Merriam Theater.

Several stagehands said their compensation - which varies according to how many shows come through town and how often they are called to work - averaged between $40,000 and $70,000 per year. "We're not like workers at the Convention Center," one said.

A Kimmel spokesman said an analysis of the W-2s issued to stagehands for the 12 months ending June 30, 2010 showed that the Kimmel employed 258 stagehands - the vast majority of whom worked “only a handful of weeks or individual performances.”

Nineteen stagehands were considered full-time, and their average salary was $75,000. Four of those 19 earned over $110,000 during the year, the spokesman said.

IATSE is representing all four units at the bargaining table, and each unit has its own set of issues. For everyone, it boils down to wages and working conditions such as staffing levels, according to union members and observers of talks.

Compensation for web and simulcast events has been at issue, and the Kimmel “wanted to shift some of the work to a non-union workforce," said IATSE’s Barnes.

Devan - who, along with Pennsylvania Ballet executive director Michael G. Scolamiero - is taking a role in negotiations, said the goal is to pay stagehands and other professionals what the Kimmel can afford, and make it “enough so that they will stay in the community and enough to feed their families.”

Without a deal, Barnes said, “we will return to the picket line and continue our fight for the fair wages and benefits we deserve and have earned.”