Friday, December 31, 2010

Broadcast Union News Responds To The Ritual Annual Stagehand Bashing

By Bob Daraio
Broadcast Union News

In Mark Hemingway's December 27, 2010, Washington Examiner article, The Power of Unions he quotes a November 1, 2009 Bergen Record column by James Ahearn, For Backstage Labor, Rich Rewards , that suggests that stagehands represented by IATSE Local One, working 80 to 100 grueling hours a week during the Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center seasons, are over paid.

They are wrong.

These articles imply that stagehand work is unskilled and that the compensation package for the IATSE Local One represented department heads at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center are typical for stagehands in NYC.

Both these inferences could not be further from the truth.

Having been a stagehand working in theater, film, and television since 1977, I am offended that people are under the misguided impression that our work is "unskilled". Like most stagehands, I have a BFA in Theater Technology. Many of my brothers and sisters have MA or MFA degrees in our field. I am currently studying industrial labor relations in order to earn an MA in Labor Studies. A number of my union brothers and sisters have earned MBAs and law degrees in order to be better prepared to function effectively in the business of entertainment.

Stagehands in NYC have to pass a difficult entrance examination and serve an apprenticeship prior to earning their IATSE Local One union card. In addition, stagehands are required to be licensed for many special skills such as pyrotechnics and rigging, as well as having to keep current on the latest computer assisted design (CAD) techniques, computerized lighting systems, automation and robotics, a wide range of audio, video, and other multimedia technology.

I think the average stagehand in New York City earns somewhere between $60 and $70 thousand dollars a year. My best year in TV, I earned $96,000 in 260 long work days.  My average annual pay over a 30 year career was about $70K. A good living, but hardly a king's ransom. Yes, there are always exceptions at both ends of the earning scale.

Many stagehands have seen a drop in income due to the closing of TV studios, canceling of long running soap operas, and shrinking crews on Broadway as more automation, smaller shows, and limited runs take their toll on employment.

People who don't work in the entertainment industry don't realize that the theatrical schedule is six days a week, including all weekends and holidays. TV stations are on the air 24 hours a day 7 days a week, 365 days a year to provide you with news, sports, and entertainment. Shouldn't there be compensation for missing Thanksgiving dinner with our families, Christmas and birthdays with our children, year after year?

Department heads at large shops like Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, and Lincoln Center have to manage multimillion dollar budgets; use advanced computerized payroll, employee scheduling, and inventory reporting systems; understand complicated pension and welfare plans to advise their crews on health insurance and retirement issues; and be experts at management/labor relations.

There is a very good reason these well educated, highly skilled, accomplished stagehands earn six figure incomes. The level of responsibility they assume, the intellectual abilities required, and the hours they put in demand a commensurate level of compensation.

It is interesting to note that neither Hemingway nor Ahearn have any issue with Carnegie Hall's CEO, Clive Gillinson's $946,581.00 annual salary, but are offended by the earnings of highly skilled department heads that receive between one third to half of Gillinson's wages for two to three times the hours worked.

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