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Kennedy Center stagehands reach agreement with the performing arts venue, sparing ‘Hadestown’ from cancellation

A strike had threatened the run of the Tony Award-winning musical “Hadestown” at the Kennedy Center. (T. Charles Erickson)
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Two days after authorizing a strike, the stagehands union reached a deal Saturday with the Kennedy Center, ensuring the run of “Hadestown” and a slate of other dance, theater and music performances will be presented as planned.

Members of Local 22 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees ratified a deal that extends through 2023 and is retroactive to September 2020. It also includes a first-year wage freeze and modest increases in the second and third years. The contract outlines the union’s role in events at the Reach, the arts center’s expansion, and establishes covid protocols.

Local 22 President David McIntyre described the negotiation as a “long, hard slog.”

“Unfortunately it was the threat of a strike,” that broke the impasse, McIntyre said Saturday. “As painful as it was to live through the last 16 months of this, it feels like the last 48 hours or so the Kennedy Center started bargaining.”

The result is a contract that protects the stagehands and also offers financial relief to the arts center, he said.

Kennedy Center president and chief executive Deborah Rutter welcomed the deal, saying it addressed the needs of the stagehands and the financial challenges of the arts center.

“I am trying to thread a needle here, bring us back safely,” Rutter said, noting that the arts center has been hard-hit by the pandemic closures.

The toughest issue was finding a compromise on the use of IATSE stagehands in the Reach, the expansion spaces that opened two years ago. They agreed to a compromise that carves out some small, community-based programs, she said.

“The big projects that require theatrical lighting, sound installations, we said yes, you are right” that IATSE members be hired, she said, adding that smaller, community-based programs that are important to their mission will be exempt.

“We have a really great crew. I applaud them,” she said. “People always sing the praises of the Kennedy Center crew, and this is not just the crew of today. This is a legacy of who the center is.”

The deal comes more than a year after the stagehands’ contract expired in September of 2020. Leading up to the resolution, unresolved issues dragged out negotiations, including disagreements over staffing levels, wages and overtime pay.

Last week, the Kennedy Center faced mounting pressure to reach a deal. A strike was authorized on Thursday after a unanimous vote by members of Local 22, which threatened to interrupt — or fully cancel — the Kennedy Center’s highly anticipated production of “Hadestown,” scheduled to run from Oct. 13 through 31.

Kennedy Center stagehands authorize strike, putting ‘Hadestown’ and other scheduled shows in jeopardy

Earlier this week, McIntyre told The Washington Post he was confident much of the Kennedy Center’s operations would be shut down if a deal was not reached.

The contract expired six months after the center closed because of the pandemic, putting most union members out of work. Originally, the union offered to extend their contract for a year, and next proposed cutting wages by 10 percent for the pandemic’s duration. McIntyre said the Kennedy Center wanted to make permanent cuts.

Eileen Andrews, the center’s vice president of public relations, did not anticipate performance cancellations and said most issues had been resolved by the end of talks that stretched for 16 hours, into Thursday morning. The only outstanding issue, according to Andrews, was the use of IATSE stagehands for events at the Reach and in the community. Changes in staffing for such programming would be cost-prohibitive, Andrews said.

The Kennedy Center faced scrutiny last year when it was awarded a $25 million grant to stay afloat during the pandemic, and subsequently announced that it would furlough 250 employees. According to Andrews, the center, which canceled its 2020 season and fully reopened in September, concluded the 2021 fiscal year with a $9 million deficit and will enter 2022 with a projected deficit of $7 million.

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