Stilt actors perform a skit during a protest of theater workers from union SEIU Local 32BJ, outside the Broadway League's office, before a vote authorizing a strike on Wednesday, Dec. 12.
The union representing hundreds of Broadway theater cleaners, porters, elevator operators and bathroom attendants voted Wednesday to authorize its leaders to call a strike if a new contract isn't approved by the end of the month, potentially throwing a wrench into a busy holiday season.
Members of the 250-person 32BJ union voted during a noisy rally on the street outside the Times Square offices of the Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners.
Any strike would affect workers at 32 of Broadway's 40 theaters where the 32BJ has a contract, meaning all the Shubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn-owned theaters, as well as the Circle in the Square Theatre. The eight other Broadway theaters have different arrangements.
The 32BJ contract expires Dec. 30, and workers are seeking pay increases and better health care benefits. The next bargaining session is scheduled for Friday and another is set for Dec. 18.
Jessica Vargas, a cleaner at the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre and a member of the union's bargaining committee, said that her fellow workers make about $17 an hour and that she hopes to get a $1.50 per hour increase. Other cleaners in the city, she noted, make about about $25 an hour.
"We want to be equal with all cleaners all across New York City. We get paid the lowest on Broadway," Vargas said. If there is a strike, she said, "it's going to be tough on Broadway. It's going to be rough on the city. If we go on strike, the city goes on strike."
Many of the people who do Broadway's most unglamorous work — hauling equipment, running the elevators, tidying bathrooms and sweeping the theaters — must work for as much as 10 weeks before their health coverage kicks in. The union wants that coverage to start when employees begin work, among other demands.
"We need health coverage for every week that a worker works," said Shirley Aldenol, vice president of the union. "We're here to fight to make sure that our theater cleaners get treated fairly and with respect."
The League, in a conciliatory statement, said it has had several days of "productive negotiations" with the union and looks forward to reaching "a mutually beneficial agreement."
This being Broadway, there was a little razzle-dazzle amid the car honks and whistles at the rally. Three stilt walkers from the Bread and Puppet Theater troupe towered above the crowd; two women dressed as cleaners in white smocks and feather dusters tried to tidy up the street while being berated by a man on stilts with a top hat, a fake mustache and a cigar.
The last major strike on Broadway was in late 2007, when a 19-day walkout dimmed the lights at more than two dozen shows and cost producers and the city millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Many speakers at the rally pointed out that the health of Broadway is good, with shows yielding a record $1.14 billion in grosses last season, and total attendance reaching 12.3 million.
"What attracts people? Well, it's a great experience that they have. That is because of our actors, it's because of our musicians and of course it's because of the people behind the scenes — our cleaners, our porters, our elevator operators, our matrons," said New York City Council member Dan Garodnick.
The 32BJ, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, has more than 120,000 members, concentrated in the Northeast. It represents janitors, property maintenance workers, doormen, security officers, window cleaners and food service workers.