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Lights! Action!

By William F. Buckley

The strike by the stagehands against the Broadway theaters is of personal interest to far more people than the stagehands themselves, the producers and the actors. It gives special pain to, among others, theatergoers, restaurant owners and cab drivers.

It is difficult to opine in the matter of the actual conflict because the terms of the quarrel are elusive. It is about money, ultimately, but not in a way that lends itself to economic analysis of the conventional kind. The producers claim that union work rules force them to overhire, and that stagehands are often paid for doing nothing. The stagehands' union hotly denies the charge and accuses the producers of showing a lack of respect. The strife continues as these words are written, with neither side so far being willing to budge.

We are informed that there are stagehands who earn $100,000 per year, and producers whose plays bring in $100,000 per night. But that conveys only one part of the picture. Theater is a precarious enterprise. The least circumstance can suffice to close down a play, or to prevent it from being launched. Both sides suffer when that occurs. It would be possible to write a seductive, even a poignant play based on the privations of theater producers; as also, of stagehands. The inclination in such matters is quite correctly to decline to formulate adjudications in terms of justice.

The question arises, What can anyone outside the conflict do about it? It is a sound principle for government to decline intercession in labor-management disputes unless the community is seriously threatened. The famous formulation was that of Calvin Coolidge, who said that there is no right to strike against the public interest. But he was talking about a strike by the police. It would be a challenge to devise persuasive means of arguing that having 27 theaters closed affects the public interest as greatly as being without police protection. Even bus drivers are not estopped from striking, although when that happens an entire city can be immobilized.

This is not to say that the community is not suffering from this strike. The people who traveled to New York for the purpose of seeing a play will go back home having not seen it. Unlike the movies, access to plays is limited. And others who would have come to New York for that purpose will change their plans. One estimate puts at 65 percent the proportion of Broadway audiences who do not live in New York City. The last time there was a strike against Broadway theaters, city businesses lost an estimated $7 million per day.

And there are other, non-economic considerations. It's obvious that missing a Broadway show will not be a life-threatening event. But the stage has a magic that can transform evenings, and sometimes even lives. Its ability to make us laugh or weep provides one of the buoyancies that give us joy.

What would serve the public interest, it would seem clear, is a formula of some kind that would leave the entities free to carry on their dispute while continuing to provide their services: the stagehands' union free to set its demands, the producers to state their own. But if the services forgone aren't critical enough to justify government intercession -- as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rightly decided -- that should not stop the search for an architecture by which to guard against future deadlock.

It is left to the imagination of the mayor and other public figures to set forth proposals that would lead in the right direction. One hopes that there are dramatic resources available to hew out one more provision by which contending parties agree to govern themselves.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate

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