Kimmel Center strike on hiatus

Kimmel Center union workers strike outside the Kimmel Center. (Peter Dobrin / Staff)

Update: 6:30 p.m. Saturday: IATSE union and Kimmel Center leaders have agreed to a deal that puts the strike of Kimmel workers on the back burner for at least a week. The Kimmel will reopen its theaters Sunday, and all performances will go on as scheduled at least through next Sunday, Oct. 9. Talks are expected to begin again, but no sooner than Oct. 10. More details soon.


Update, 3:15 p.m. Saturday:

We know it's a strike because Kimmel Center president Anne Ewers says it's one, and the union representing stagehands, ushers, box office and wardrobe staff says it is.

But there are some finer points, apparently, to the labor scuffle that has canceled today's performances at the Kimmel - since box office staff showed up to work this morning.

Some might call that crossing the picket line, and that's how stagehands demonstrating Saturday in front of the Kimmel with a giant inflatable rat interpreted it.

After being asked to rephrase his initial response with words that could be used in a family newspaper, one stagehand 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. (TicketPhiladelphia phone agents are not represented by the union, and will continue working, a Kimmel spokesman said.)

There's also some debate as to whether the ushers and wardrobe workers are on strike. In a way, they can have it both ways. If shows have been canceled, there is no work for them and no need to show up, and the significance of not working is in the eye of the beholder.

IATSE, however, 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 so far. 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 local 8 business agent Michael Barnes.

These employees generally work when there are shows on, and don't when theaters are dark. Ushers, for instance, work a few hours a day, on an hourly basis, and not every day. It seems doubtful that the job is a living wage for any usher. 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 year 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.

Opera Company of Philadelphia general director David Devan, who, although not the employer, 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."

Talks are continuing.


UPDATE, 10:30 a.m. Saturday: The Kimmel's management plans to cancel or postpone performances on a day-to-day basis as needed. So all of Saturday's concerts are off: Audra McDonald is rescheduled for Nov. 30, two performances Saturday of The Big Bang in the Innovation Studio are canceled, as are Saturday's two performances of Angela Barrows-Dunlap's Why Do Good Girls Like Bad Boyz at the Merriam Theater.


Contract negotiations between the Kimmel Center and its union workers failed to produce a new agreement Friday night, prompting stagehands, ushers, box office staff and wardrobe workers to go on strike.

Closed for the time being are the Kimmel Center’s two main theaters, Verizon Hall and the Perelman Theater, as well as the Kimmel-managed Academy of Music and Merriam Theater.

The Kimmel called off Saturday night’s Audra McDonald appearance (postponing it until Nov. 30), and hanging in the balance immediately are the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Sunday afternoon Carmen and several performances at the Merriam of Angela Barrows-Dunlap's Why Do Good Girls Like Bad Boyz.

"We are disappointed that our workers represented by IATSE, Local 8 have chosen to strike,” said Kimmel president Anne Ewers in a prepared statement. “Make no mistake, a strike makes the financial pressures worse. Performances, for the time being at least, must be canceled. This makes the revenue challenges we all face even more difficult. And it hurts the people most important to our collective futures — the patrons who attend our shows.”

Negotiations between the Kimmel and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees went through the day Friday with assistance from a federal mediator and others, and are expected to resume Saturday afternoon.

This is the first time the Kimmel has been shuttered by a labor dispute since opening in Dec. 2001.

It was unclear Saturday morning how many concerts would be canceled, but among the Kimmel’s resident companies, the Opera Company of Philadelphia would be the most immediately and severely affected. If the opera’s entire run of Carmen were canceled, “it would be a substantial blow to this company,” resulting in a loss of just under $2 million on the troupe’s $10 million annual budget, said the opera’s general director, David Devan. “Carmen is our Nutcracker of the season.”

That might result in the Opera Company canceling all of its Academy of Music performances this season, he said.

Devan lamented the fact that the Opera Company’s financial achievements of the last few years – the building of a cash reserve, balanced budgets, increases in philanthropy – are now in jeopardy. “And as a result of an issue that we’re not even directly involved in.”

Not knowing how long the strike will last makes it impossible to know what the impact will be on all eight of the Kimmel’s resident companies. Some, like the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, perform at the Kimmel and elsewhere.

But the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concerts from October to May are held almost exclusively in Verizon Hall, and the opening of the 2011-12 season Thursday night - a free concert for college students – is now in the hands of the Kimmel and IATSE, and their willingness to resume talks and reach an agreement.

October is the traditional start of the busiest time of the arts calendar. Scheduled at the Kimmel this month are more than 80 events (not counting rentals by outside groups), including appearances by Herbie Hancock, David Sedaris, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Ballet, Lang Lang, Emerson Quartet and the Curtis Symphony Orchestra.

Michael Barnes, business agent for local 8 of IATSE, said Friday night that the union was seeking a three percent raises for its members.

Ewers declined to speak about specifics of the four separate union contracts, but she pointed out that Kimmel management had taken $1.5 million in salary reductions recently, and that “one has to look at the Philadelphia Orchestra Association in bankruptcy and realize that [a new contract] must be a bigger piece of the puzzle.”

The orchestra owes the Kimmel $1.4 million in back rent, according to Ewers, creating a $450,000 deficit for the Kimmel Center in fiscal year 2011.

She said in her statement: “This negotiation cannot simply be about what a union wants. It is about what the performing arts community can bear at a difficult time. We will be fair, but we cannot ‘buy peace’ by agreeing to terms that ignore the issues of the day or the context of our times. We cannot agree to terms that will imperil our ability to fulfill our civic mission: to bring the incredible power of the performing arts to the Greater Philadelphia community.”