Saturday, December 3, 2011

An Actor/Musician Reflects on PATCO, Unions, and Strikes

This week I received an inspiring note from a former student of mine from back when I taught at SUNY-Geneseo.  His name is Lucas Papaelias, and he now makes his living as an actor and musician in New York City.   Lucas was moved by my account of the PATCO strike to talk about his own recent experiences during the 2007 strike by Broadway stagehands, members of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.  He explains why he supported that strike, even though it might have potentially cost him a chance to appear in a high-profile production with stars Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner.  He tells that story, goes on to explain how his other union, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, came to his rescue in another dispute, and reflects on the importance of unions for all workers.  Here is what he wrote: 
i was unaware of the scope of the '81 PATCO strike.... i think it is an incredible subject matter and a true American story. it is inspiring, and got me to think of my own experiences.

in fall 2007, at the same time the Screen Actors Guild Writers strike was in full-swing, there was also an unprecedented strike conducted by the Local 1 stagehands union, which shut down most of Broadway for several weeks during november. the Actors Equity Association (my union since '00) was in full support of the strike, which affected me directly; i was making my Broadway debut at the time in a production of Cyrano de
Bergerac, starring Kevin Kline & Jennifer Garner. i played several small roles, and composed & performed the show's incidental music along with two other actor/musicians.

the Local 1 strike threatened the entire Broadway season and, like the recent NBA lockout, could have been catastrophic, given the timing. nonetheless, i was willing for my exciting, high-profile, and well-paying gig to end, if it meant that the stagehands were facing the loss of benefits that were already in their contracts at a time when commercial Broadway shows were raking in record profits. i knew, after standing alongside the Local 1 members on their picket line, that i was a part of something even bigger, something historic, at least in the context of the industry i work in.

this spirit stayed with me in the weeks after performances picked up again following Thanksgiving weekend. upon request, myself and the two other musicians in Cyrano were subsequently denied the reimbursement for rental of our personal instruments, as well as compensation for the arrangement and notation of original music we had composed specifically for the production (work we had not originally been contracted for, but work that we gladly did, nonetheless, at the request of, and with the support of, our director).

once we found out that Cyrano was going to be taped for PBS's Great Performances, we had no choice but to get the Local 802 Musicians union involved. this ended up netting us each almost three times the amount of compensation that we had originally asked for! it seemed ridiculous, because all i really wanted was rental for my instrument, a proper writing credit for the music, and yeah, maybe just a small sign respect & acknowledgement from my employer.

i mean, it was a dream gig, and it was very easy to fall into the "i'm just lucky to be here" camp, which is a common attitude in the entertainment biz, and one that is easily exploited. i realized that, among other things, unions are here to make sure that the producers (management, employers, etc) don't act shady. and if they DO act shady, and are proven to have done so, they should have to pay a price. employers should keep their word and treat their employees fairly & respectfully, end of story. that's how the best work gets done.

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