January 29, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – With suspended props, moving scenery and revolving parts, the incredibly cramped spaces backstage at Broadway theaters are always chaotic and even dangerous – they also hapen to epitomize the synchronistic relationship that can exist between different locals.
The current class of the NYS AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute recently got an opportunity to experience that symphonious interconnection first-hand at a performance of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” inside the Stephen Sondheim Theatre located at 124 West 43rd Street.
“This demonstrates that there are a lot of opportunities to work together across different unions and make something fabulous,” said Vivian Fernandez, a student at the Union Leadership Institute and member of SEIU Healthcare’s Committee of Interns and Residents.
The NYS AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute has been cultivating future labor leaders like Fernandez since 2003. Some of the most influential working on the scene today are graduates of the year-long program. They include United Federation of Teachers [UFT] President Michael Mulgrew, NYC Central Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer and UFT Vice-President for Academic High Schools Janella Hinds, Teamsters Local 237 President Gregory Floyd and DC37 Local 420 President Carmen Charles.
In addition to local union officers, business representatives and senior staffers, this year’s class also includes members from two NYC-based non-traditional labor organizations – ROC-NY [Restaurant Opportunity Center] and NICE [New Immigrant Community Empowerment.
According to Gene Carroll, NYS AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute co-director, the program at least partially exists to foster a “broad and deep unity” among today’s sometimes “fragmented” labor community.
“The Union Leadership Institute is designed in part to break all that down and allow emerging leaders from different unions, different sectors and different occupations to develop an intense learning community together for a year,” said Carroll.
Once forged, those relationships have continued long after the program has been completed.
"The Cornell Union Leadership Institute has been instrumental to my understanding of New York's labor movement, in coordinating labor's preparation for meaningful collaboration and support of working people across the state," said Hinds. "I am honored to have participated in the inaugural graduating class.”
Floyd, who took part in the Union Leadership Institute in 2007, calls the program’s instructors’ “visionary,” and said he is grateful to have shared the experience with a “dynamic and progressive group of labor leaders.”
Carl Mulert is a member of the NYS AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute’s current class, and is working to build those same kinds of partnerships while also acting as business representative for Live Performance United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829, IATSE.
For him, the importance of organized labor’s unity on Broadway cannot be overemphasized.
“Eighty-five percent of those working in the theater industry are members of a union,” Mulert said. “Broadway’s economic impact on New York is $11.2 billion annually.”
“The Great White Way” also provides the city with $1.2 billion in tax revenues. More than 12 million theater tickets are sold annually – an overwhelming majority of them purchased out-of-state.
“That’s why the entertainment unions are so powerful,” said Mulert. “You shut that down and… well, nobody wants that to happen.”
Still, coordinating 86,000 full-time workers and protecting their individual interests takes a lot of dedication and a highly developed sense of collaboration.
To stage the knock-out performances of “Beautiful” each night, for instance, teams of highly specialized workers represented by a variety of unions – including Actors’ Equity, Theatrical Wardrobe Union Local 764, Associated Musicians of Greater New York Local 802, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, must somehow work together seamlessly under the most unforgiving of circumstances.
When part of the stage malfunctioned during opening night of "Machinal" at the American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street in December, they didn't ask if there were any doctors in the house – they asked if there were any stage hands in the house. There were, and the show went on.
Said Fernandez, “I think making those same kinds of connections is the next step in the labor movement.”