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Collective Bargaining: It’s a Wonderful Life!

Broadway can learn plenty from the collective bargaining negotiations recently completed by Major League Baseball and their players, the MLB Players Association (MLBPA.) At stake this year was the expiration and potential 5-year renewal of the baseline contract between players and their bosses, the team owners. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is negotiated by the MLBPA on behalf of the on-field players, the ‘talent’ of MLB. Owners of each of the 30 MLB teams sit on opposite sides of a negotiating table, hammering out what they believe are fair terms that benefit the owners and players alike.

Broadway workers (and most venue halls across the country) are subject to similar CBA agreements. Each of the nearly 15 labor unions under Broadway jurisdiction carry their own labor contract with The Broadway League, the trade organization made up of producers, venue leaders, executives, and administrative staff similar in structure to a sports league entity. Imagine the number of hours spent negotiating and renegotiation so many labor contracts. Imagine the cascading effect one ‘give’ or ‘no’ in a contract can lead to for the other subsequent unions. Personally, I’ve sat on both sides of this negotiating table, as both a union member for one negotiation and a representative for The Broadway League on another. This might be where the MLB comparison should end, but….

When it comes to labor relations for any industry (sports, airline, industrial, entertainment) you often hear tall tales of strikes or lockouts should a deal be far from completion. Certainly MLB and Broadway are not without precedent when it comes to work stoppages, but they are far from the norm. Significant MLB work stoppages occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s when the owners locked out the players from stadiums. Nothing was more catastrophic for baseball than the 1994 players strike that resulted in an abrupt ending to the season and the first forced cancellation of a first World Series in baseball history. Two recent work stoppages occurred on Broadway in the 2000s, the first by a musicians strike in 2003 and second by the IATSE Local 1 stagehands in 2007. Both unions are integral to the business of Broadway and both unions triggered a collective right within their organizing power. The commencement of a labor strike instigated a very public stance of securing better deal terms for their members. In principle, neither side wants work stoppages; they are typically the last (and most public) action, especially when their personal, hard-earned paychecks are on the line if a work stoppage occurs. The MLB and Broadway brands suffered financial hits due to these strikes, sometimes with significant results. I was forced to close a Broadway show following the 2007 strike due to lost revenue from the cancelled performances. Additionally, work stoppages can be damaging to the public perception of your business. In MLB’s case, it took years to recover. Initiatives such as re-alignment, the introduction of the now popular Wild-Card format, and Inter-League play were all created to offset the body blow baseball took in the mid 1990s. Broadway, as a whole, rebounded slightly faster after its recent work stoppages, mostly due to the quick resolution of their labor strikes.

To anyone that follows MLB, and by association their CBA negotiations, it was quite clear that an agreement would be made on Wednesday night and a strike would be averted, a few hours before the current deal was set to expire. A plethora of topics were on the table, and really, aren’t they always during collective bargaining? The difference though was both sides knew exactly the same thing going in: it’s not 1994 anymore. Life is good for baseball right now. Really good. This is an industry yielding $10 BILLION in yearly revenue. Attendance is near all-time numbers, TV contracts paid to MLB teams are soaring, and the players themselves are using skillful market demand analysis and well-crafted negotiations to improve their personal deals. Additionally, quality of life for the travelling baseball player has improved dramatically over time.

[Sidebar: Did you know that rules exist in the MLB CBA about down time after West Coast games and when a first pitch must occur after a travel day? On Broadway, members of the trade union Association of Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM), for which I am a Board member, are required to remain up-to-date with all labor contracts on Broadway. For most of these contracts, comparable travel and lodging stipulations appear in all agreements especially for touring conditions. For our great traveling actors and crew who basically live out of suitcases year round, it’s important that travel and work restrictions become memorialized to keep their quality of life a top priority.]

Players and owners managed their expectations from the start of these negotiations and recognized each side’s laundry list of wishes would be put forward, removed, rejected, or accepted. But this wasn’t war. Owners and players knew the product is terrific right now, work conditions are highly favorable, revenue is flowing, and all parties are compensated handsomely from it.

Baseball, as an industry, is having a wonderful life. This CBA negotiation was less positioned about addressing salary increases for an already robust industry and focused more on contractual term limits. I won’t bore you with details but one of the biggest issues on the table was the ability to limit the level of ‘compensatory draft pick’ associated with a free agent signing. Simply, imagine you left your current employer and signed a contract with a new one. In some cases with MLB, that new employer would be required to send your old employer a future/unidentified employee-position to them. Sounds crazy, no? By the end of Wednesday, a deal was hammered out and from all indications both sides are happy with the final outcome. No collective bargaining negotiation is without drama, deliberations, and difficulty. Reps were negotiating until 5am Wed morning, only to go home, shower, and come right back to the negotiating table! Broadway has seen similar sleepless nights, all for the greater good. Ask a general manager or union rep how many pizzas they’ve consumed around a conference room table at 5am and you might think about starting your own CBA Food Delivery Company (wait, that’s a great idea!)

So what can Broadway learn?

For starters, don’t be fooled by the salary disparities between MLB players and Broadway personnel. It’s a wonderful life for the Great White Way as well. Broadway shows grossed a higher-than-ever $1.3 Billion during the 2015–2016 season, and that’s NYC only. This past week, Hamilton alone topped $3.2 million over the 8 performances around Thanksgiving. New shows like Dear Evan Hansen, A Bronx Tale, and revivals like Hello, Dolly are well positioned to join The Lion King, The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, School of Rock with fruitful revenues and keep the box office booming before Elsa, Anna, and Harry Potter spike the punchbowl again.

As long as producers, artists, and storytellers continue churning out terrific, daring, thought-provoking, and entertaining product, the business of show will remain vigorous. Even the non-Hamiltons of the world pump money into pension plans and annuity funds. The bloodline of Broadway, thanks to Judge Burton Turkus, allows a collective bloodline for pension plans, in probably Broadway’s only true ‘rev share’ model. Collective bargaining doesn’t need to be sticky. Sure, it can be exhausting and it should be tough, especially if there are justifiable boiling points. AEA actors in LA can speak volumes about that. But if both parties recognize you’ve got a good thing going already, there’s no reason for division or animosity.

Broadway continually recognizes participation by all its artists and designers and is progressively taking steps to ensure deeper roots. You may have read about the potential trendsetting profit sharing agreement between Hamilton original cast members and its producers back in April. Other shows are following suit starting with Frozen. As Broadway continues to expand its financial ecosystem, new roads will be paved to uncover additional economic holy grails. Even so, it’s already a wonderful life on Broadway. Just ask those 5am pizza delivery people.

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