With two shows running on Broadway (Kimberly Akimbo and Days of Wine and Roses) and at least two others on the way (Buena Vista Social Club and English), the Atlantic Theater Co. has affirmed its status as a preeminent presenter of new work and a sought-after partner of commercial producers and other nonprofit companies.
Now, leaders of the Chelsea-based institution are trying to head off what they see as a less desirable distinction: becoming the first major off-Broadway nonprofit to employ only union production workers.
Some 178 part-time and full-time stagehands, carpenters, electricians, scenic artists, sound and video operators and hair, makeup and wardrobe staffers who work at the Atlantic are eligible to vote on whether to be represented in contract negotiations by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. With some 15,000 members in the New York City metropolitan area, including Broadway stagehands, the union is also organizing at the long-running off-Broadway commercial musicals Little Shop of Horrors and Titantique.
The campaigns could contribute to higher production costs and ticket prices as the industry struggles to recover from the pandemic. The union push follows labor wins in Hollywood and Detroit, and calls for live theater to increase compensation for the rank and file.
“People are feeling empowered,” said Elsa Hiltner, a Chicago-based labor organizer and activist. “The younger generations come in with different ideas about work-life balance and healthcare.”
The Atlantic is already governed by contracts with Actors’ Equity Association, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and Local 829 of United Scenic Artists. “To be clear, Atlantic is not anti-union,” Artistic Director Neil Pepe and other Atlantic executives wrote to its stage technicians in November. “We know that unions can be both necessary and helpful in certain situations, but we do not believe that unionization is the right or best choice for Atlantic and our Production employees.”
Freelance technicians who work frequently at the Atlantic and are involved in unionizing met last week with Broadway Journal at a downtown coffee shop. They seek better pay — now about $27 to $30 an hour — and they want benefits.
“We love these shows, but we’re tired of being left on the bottom,” said Natalie Soto, a 27-year-old Atlantic audio technician. “It’s hard to imagine getting older and doing this work and not having health insurance or a retirement fund.”
Her brother, Christian Soto, a 30-year-old lighting board operator, said he has put off some medical treatment and seeing an ophthalmologist. “I’m using old spare contacts and glasses prescribed to me years ago,” he said. “I’m on my last pair of contacts.”
The Public Theater off-Broadway pays $37.13 per hour for its union stagehands, according to its contract with Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). That agreement is more limited than IATSE’s ambitions at the Atlantic and involves just four union positions. When productions are running, one Local One stagehand is assigned to the Public’s Newman Theater, another works the Anspacher and two are assigned to the Delacorte in Central Park, according to the contract, which was obtained by Broadway Journal.
The Atlantic, founded in 1985 by David Mamet, William H. Macy and other theater artists, has challenged IATSE’s value to the workers. “While the union may say it’s going to get you better wages, insurance coverage or other benefits, that’s not always the case,” management wrote to the production workers. Technicians must be “prepared to lose the benefits and relationships which could vanish with union regulations…a union can fundamentally change the nature of employees’ relationship with the theater.”
Mikey Stevens, a 26-year-old carpenter, stagehand and assistant technical director, called management’s emphasis on the potential losses from unionization a scare tactic. “From the first meetings between the Atlantic organizing committee and IATSE reps, the union made it clear that nothing is guaranteed about the potential results of bargaining, particularly regarding wages and conditions,” Stevens wrote in an email to Broadway Journal. “The fact remains that, in most cases, people working on IATSE contracts in New York enjoy higher wages than their non-union counterparts, and IATSE workers have access to benefits that the rest of us simply don’t.”
Atlantic General Manager Pamela Adams and spokespeople for the company didn’t return emails for comment.
Andrew Hamingson, the managing director of the Atlantic from 2004 to 2008, now an independent producer and consultant, recalled failed efforts in the past to organize crews around off-Broadway. “Production workers are some of the hardest working employees in theater, and the ones most taken advantage of,” he said in an interview. “I understand why they would want to unionize.”
With its SRO runs and enviable record of commercial transfers, including Spring Awakening in 2006 and The Band’s Visit in 2017, the Atlantic might appear to be a pocket of prosperity off-Broadway. Yet in an email to the workers, executives cited escalating production costs, large losses on limited runs and a declining number of theatergoer members, resulting in an operating deficit of $1.4 million in 2022. (Expenses in 2021-22 were $15 million.)
According to the company’s 2021-22 financials filed with the state, when including the generous federal pandemic relief, net assets increased by $4.1 million, or 72 percent. This year, with the federal aid depleted, the Atlantic has fewer productions planned while projecting a $1.3 million operating shortfall.
In the email about finances, management didn’t mention the company’s nest egg, which was all but nonexistent in the most recent publicly available financial statement. As of August 2022, the company had just $921,000 of investments and no investment income, which is unusual for an organization of its stature.
Many Atlantic production workers had prior exposure to IATSE. Three of the four technicians I met with are graduates of the Theatrical Workforce Development Program, which the Roundabout Theatre Co. created with the union in 2016 to train young NYC residents, particularly people of color, women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
“The way to diversify the community of entertainment workers,” said Daniel Little, an IATSE organizer, “is to ensure that people can work in stable jobs that provide a living wage, access to health insurance and retirement savings.”
On July 17, 2023, IATSE hosted a well-attended “town hall meeting for off-Broadway workers” at the West 46th St. headquarters of Local One, which represents stagehands. “It was not a recruiting session,” Little said. “Rather it was an opportunity for the community to meet and discuss changes happening at their jobs and across the industry.”
IATSE is planning a rally for Atlantic workers on Feb. 5 in Washington Square Park. On Feb. 9, part-time and full-time employees of Titanique are scheduled to vote at the musical’s home, the Daryl Roth Theatre, on whether to unionize, according to a National Labor Relations Board filing. Ballots for the Atlantic election must be returned to the NLRB by Feb. 12. Little said that if that vote succeeds, it’s in no one’s interest to make demands that could imperil the Atlantic’s viability.
Christian Soto noted that some Broadway production workers earn multiples of what he and his colleagues make. “We want to see change in the industry,” he said. “We know off-Broadway is not going to be the same pay as on Broadway. But there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement.”
Note: This story was corrected to say that the Atlantic Theater would be the first major off-Broadway nonprofit to employ exclusively union production workers. It originally said the company would be the first major off-Broadway nonprofit to employ any union production workers.