Happy Labor Day. Now what the heck is it?

When I was a young pup, I thought Labor Day was code for National Barbeque-Where-Your-Extended-Family-Gets-Drunk-and-Falls-in-the-Pool Day.

But surprise, surprise, Uncle Johnny, it’s not that.

It’s also not National End-of-Summer Day, or even National Back-to-School Day.

And sorry, Moms, it’s not a day honoring you for giving birth (although, I think you all need, like, three weeks off for that one).

It’s Labor Day, a day the Department of Labor defines as “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

I’d like to take today’s post to recognize the contributions our industry’s workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of Broadway and beyond.

Everyone knows we’ve got some pretty powerful unions that provide us with the labor we need to produce and develop shows.  And why shouldn’t they be powerful?  They represent the best the world has to offer in terms of technical and creative theatrical skills.

And while it may be easy to throw stones at the unions for some of our industry’s issues, it’s important to remember why unions were born in the first place . . . to further one of the basic principles our country was founded on:  checks and balances.

So today, when you’re biting into a burger, or when your uncle has one too many Zimas and belly-flops into the deep end, remember that we’re all in this together.

And only together can we ensure that we’ve all got good jobs for many Labor Days to come.

Who the furkus is Burton Turkus?

Burton Turkus was an attorney, an author, and most influentially to our industry, an arbitrator.

Waaaay back in the days of the original Promises, Promises, in April of 1963 to be exact, Mr. Turkus presided over an arbitration between, well, just about every theatrical union, and the then named, League of New York Theatres.

Here’s what went down 50 years ago . . .

There was a 13-day strike in 1960 known as the “Broadway Blackout” which was the result of the failure of Actors’ Equity and The League to come to terms on a new agreement.  The biggest outstanding issue?  The creation of a brand new pension fund for the Actors.

The Actors got their pension fund as a result of the walkout.  As part of the agreement, they graciously agreed to help The League lobby the City of New York for the removal of the 5% Admissions Tax that was levied on all theater tickets at the time.

The theory was . . . if they could get rid of this 5% tax, they could use that 5% to pay pensions to all the unions.  The league would be happy because they wouldn’t be paying any more than they already were.  And the unions would be happy, too, because they would all get pensions.  Happy-happy, joy-joy!

Well, it wasn’t so easy.

The two sides were successful in getting the City to do away with the tax on tickets (!) . . . but there was a disagreement in how much of that 5% should go to AEA, and, consequently, how much of the remaining amounts should be distributed to the other eight unions involved.

Make sense?

Simplified:  The 5% tax went away.  So they had a pot of 5%.  But how to whack it up?

Enter the esteemed Mr. Turkus, who, in the “Burton Turkus Award of 1963” (as it is affectionately referred), created a system for determining who got what.

First, the actual net “tax relief” that we ended up with after the repeal was a net of 4.5%, not 5%, or “the 045” (as it is also affectionately referred).

Next, in order to distribute the funds accordingly, BT examined the books of Broadway shows to determine what percentage of gross payrolls was attributed to the actors, what was attributed to the musicians, the stagehands, and so on.  These percentages make up the guts of the “Award”.

A complex chart was created which awarded different percentages of “the 045” to the various unions, depending on a few factors, like whether it was a play or a musical, and even how many musicians a show had.

Confused yet?

Let me use a specific example, using modern day numbers:

A production grosses $1,000,000 for a week.

4.5% or .045 of $1,000,000 is $45,000.

$45,000 is then allocated towards the pension of our various unions.

In a musical with over 16 musicians, The BT Award allocates Actors’ Equity 50% of the $45,000 or $22,500.  Local One gets 15% or $6,750.  Local 751, the Treasurers, got 1.88% or $846.00 and so on, until the entire $45,000 is distributed.

This happens every week on Broadway to this day!

Now, IF on your show, your 045 monies don’t pay for pension that you are responsible for, you still have to make up the difference (if the Treasurers actual pension on the salaries was supposed to be $1000, then you got billed another $154).  The .045 only contributes towards the pension due, but it doesn’t necessarily cover all of the pension due.

Why is this history lesson relevant?

The wise Mr. Turkus, who ended one of the most bitter disputes our industry has seen, and is known as a hero in certain circles, created this chart using the payroll allocation formulas that were in front of him at the time . . . that are now almost 50 years old.

Back then, the Actors made up the bulk of the payroll, which is why they got the bulk of the 045.  Things have shifted just a teensy bit over the years, and salaries for some of the other unions have increased dramatically . . . which has thrown the whole 045 off its axis.

It’s very common now that the amount due to Actors’ Equity greatly exceeds that amount that is actually due.  So you could “overpay” by thousands of dollars . . . and the 045 ain’t a Discover card.  There’s no cash back.

At the same time, shows can often have a “deficiency” to Local 1, meaning that their 045 contribution fails to pay for the entire pension due, which then means that the show has to make up the difference.

So, while you’re overpaying to one union, you’re underpaying to another, and you cannot apply the overpayment from one to the other.  You gotta make good on the underpayment, and the overpayment stays with the union.  (I remember Show Boat having a million-dollar overage at one time!)

Now, Actors’ Equity, recognized the issue over the years and created opportunities for Producers to use their “overages” on National Tours of a show after they play on Broadway .  They’ve even used that overage for a reduction to their health payments at one time.

And that’s all good . . . but I don’t think it’s enough.

I’ve got another idea.

It’s time for a Burton Turkus, Jr. to come in, toss out the archaic old formulas and come up with something new.  And maybe this one can also handle the annuities that shows also pay to the unions.

I know, I know, the unions that are getting the overages aren’t going to take to this very well.  (I think my phone has started ringing already)  Why would they?  I wouldn’t want to . . .

But it is the right thing to do.

With all due respect to the great Mr. T, the 045 has to be readjusted, reconfigured, or simply trashed sooner or later.  These aren’t the days of  the original Promises, Promises anymore.  Our economics are vastly different now, and we can’t rely on economic formulas designed in the days when a brand new Ford Mustang cost $2,495.

Mr. Turkus deserves to be in the Broadway Hall of Fame.  But his Award needs to be retired.

If you would like to read the actual Burton Turkus decision from 1963 (it’s quite fascinating) and see the percentage distribution charts, click here.

What a difference a year and a half makes at Hair.

Ok, it’s time to take a scroll down blogger lane to re-read this entry I wrote in August of ’08, after I attended a production of Hair in the park, pre-Broadway.

The entry is about how I got busted by Tibor, the fascist usher, for taking a still photo on my iPhone of the post-curtain call dance party.

Read it, then come back.

Now, jump into a time machine to present day and read in this New York Times article how Hair just jumped from the ’60s to 2010 by striking a radical agreement with the unions that allows the show to shoot the dance party on video, and then post it on their website for sharing, and tagging, and more, oh my!

Unique events are what is working on Broadway.  Hair just took its most unique quality, and bottled it up for everyone to see and share.

Super shout-out to Joey Parnes, the GM who fought for this, the Unions, for understanding that giving up a little control gains us so much more in marketing and therefore future employment opps, to the Producers for the big five-figure investment, and to Damian Bazadona and the guys and gals at Situation Interactive, for continuing to push our industry to utilize technology to solve our marketing dilemmas.

Oh, and one more shout out . .

Take that, Tibor!  Na-na-na-na-na-nah!

———-

PLAY “WILL IT RECOUP” TODAY!  Only 4 days left!

Click here to play!

The word is . . . transparency.

We’ve all heard the word “transparency” spoken by our politicians so many times over the last couple of years, that you’d think our primary export in the U.S. was Saran Wrap.

Although the word is a bit overused at this point, I can’t help but want to borrow it for our industry.

Just like the government got a little bloated over the past few years, so have we.  We were a bit more flush in the 90s than we are now.  It’s always been difficult to produce (and it always will be), but it was certainly easier in decades past.  And as Producers we need to act like our current politicians and try and slim ourselves down, which means we need to ask the appropriate questions and push our vendors, service providers, unions, etc. to get rid of their pork.

How do we do it?  The word is . . . transparency.

To be honest, I don’t blame some of the unions and service providers for some of the expenses we’re charged, no matter how little sense they make.  Why?

Study your producing history and you’ll get it.

A lot of folks got screwed back in the days of the birth of Broadway by guys in top hats who skipped town, abused actors, etc.  We’re still a relatively young industry and I believe that a lot of the adversarial tension (and unfortunate precedents) in some of our current relationships has to do with leftover baggage from some of my producing predecessors back in the early EARLY days who . . . well . . . blew it.  Read that Merrick biography.  As much as I admire so much of what he did, and his passion for this biz, he left so many bad tastes in people’s mouths, I can’t believe any of his partners even stayed in the biz.

How do we overcome some of this dysfunction?

Transparency.

Producing isn’t what it used to be.  And the more Producers are open and honest about our business dealings, and the more we are willing to open up some of our business practices for our partners to see (so that they can understand what we deal with on a day-to-day basis), the more we’ll be able to heal some of those fifty-year-old wounds.   Some of the best negotiations I’ve had were times I’ve said, “Here.  Look at the numbers.  You tell me what you would do with these economics.”

We can’t just sit around and say everyone is against us.

We have to accept the fact that we may have been responsible for some of this ourselves.

X