Columnist James Ahearn of New Jersey's Bergen Record has a great column today on, of all things, the stagehands at New York city's top performing arts venues such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. These are not highly skilled or technical jobs but take a gander at how much they are paid:
At Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, the average stagehand salary and benefits package is $290,000 a year.
To repeat, that is the average compensation of all the workers who move musicians' chairs into place and hang lights, not the pay of the top five.
Across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, a spokesman said stagehands rarely broke into the top-five category. But a couple of years ago, one did. The props master, James Blumenfeld, got $334,000 at that time, including some vacation back pay.
Ahern also notes that the top paid stagehand at Carnegie Hall makes $422,599 a year in salary, plus $107,445 in benefits and deferred compensation. So why such exhorbitant pay? You probably already guessed that a union is involved:
How to account for all this munificence? The power of a union, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. "Power," as in the capacity and willingness to close most Broadway theaters for 19 days two years ago when agreement on a new contract could not be reached.
Wakin reported that this power was palpable in the nervousness of theater administrators and performers who were asked to comment on the salary figures.
Kelly Hall-Tompkins, for one, said, "The last thing I want to do is upset the people at Carnegie Hall. I'd like to have a lifelong relationship with them." She is a violinist who recently presented a recital in Weill Hall, one of the smaller performance spaces in the building.
She said she begrudged the stagehands nothing: "Musicians should be so lucky to have a strong union like that." Uh-huh.
Be sure and read Ahearn's whole column. And next time someone tells you unions are just about fair wages for an honest day's labor, remember that's not always the case. All too often they're about power and greed.