Category Archive 'Stagehands'

29 Dec 2010

Union Extortion at New York Art Venues

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Stagehands on strike against Broadway theaters, 2007

James Ahearn, writing from New Jersey, notices the union racketeering at New York City performance centers that has been going on essentially forever.

My wife and I have season tickets for events at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. At intermissions, we sometimes watch absently as three or four men in gray suits emerge from the wings to move a piano into place or bring out extra music stands and chairs.

What they do is essential but unremarkable. Turns out that it is remarkably well-paid, however. Would you believe $422,599 a year? Plus $107,445 in benefits and deferred compensation?

That is what a fellow named Dennis O’Connell makes at Carnegie Hall. He is the props manager, the highest-paid stagehand.

Four other guys, two of them carpenters, two electricians, are paid somewhat lesser amounts, ranging down to $327,257, plus $76,459 in benefits and deferred compensation, for the junior member of the team, John Goodson, an electrician.

The New York Times broke this story last week. The reporter, Daniel J. Wakin, got it from a publicly available document, Carnegie Hall’s tax return for the 2007-08 season.

The hall was legally obliged to disclose the pay of the chief executive, Clive Gillinson, and the names and pay of the next five highest-paid employees. All five were stagehands.

Gillinson, who doubles as artistic director, was paid $946,581, nearly twice as much as O’Connell, the props manager, but not out of line for top arts executives in Manhattan.

The Carnegie stagehands’ pay was something else again, but not, as it turns out, unique. At Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, the average stagehand salary and benefits package is $290,000 a year.

To repeat, that is the average compensation of all the workers who move musicians’ chairs into place and hang lights, not the pay of the top five.

Across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, a spokesman said stagehands rarely broke into the top-five category. But a couple of years ago, one did. The props master, James Blumenfeld, got $334,000 at that time, including some vacation back pay.

How to account for all this munificence? The power of a union, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. “Power,” as in the capacity and willingness to close most Broadway theaters for 19 days two years ago when agreement on a new contract could not be reached.

Wakin reported that this power was palpable in the nervousness of theater administrators and performers who were asked to comment on the salary figures.

Kelly Hall-Tompkins, for one, said, “The last thing I want to do is upset the people at Carnegie Hall. I’d like to have a lifelong relationship with them.” She is a violinist who recently presented a recital in Weill Hall, one of the smaller performance spaces in the building.

She said she begrudged the stagehands nothing: “Musicians should be so lucky to have a strong union like that.” Uh-huh.

Isn’t it wonderful for Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center donors and ticket buyers to be able to reflect that their contributions to the arts in Manhattan allow a handful of blue-collar union goons to take home salaries higher than many of the actual performers?


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