Broward News

Kravis Center Breaks Law, Screws Workers, Stiffs Patrons [Updated]

Pretty goddamned embarrassing when Palm Beach County's premier performing arts showcase chooses to break the law with impunity rather than do right by its employees. 

But for 12 years now Palm Beach's Kravis Center has engaged in an illegal campaign of union busting that's simmered like a boil on the county's public face. They've been repeatedly cited for unfair labor practices by the National Labor Relations Board and found to have robbed workers of millions in back pay.

Now the boil has burst, oozing picket lines and protests that have drawn national attention, staining the reputations of the county, the center, and high-profile Kravis supporters like Tiffany's, whose Palm Beach store has been the scene of sympathy protests

It could have been a good night at the Kravis Wednesday. The winter season was on and Palm Beach was flush with pre-holiday snowbirds. It was supposed to be opening night for a production of "Jersey Boys," the musical based on the rise to glory of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: Sure-fire stuff for the main body of Kravis regulars, an audience with an insatiable appetite for such fare. 

But the house lights were dim. The action was out back by the theater's stage door, where a baker's dozen of stagehands from IATSE Local 500 were gathered under the streetlights. The AFL-CIO had put the Kravis on its boycott list, the local was picketing, and crews delivering equipment for the show had refused to cross the line.

"We're fed up with their bullshit," the local's business rep, Terry McKenzie, told me. "The Kravis Center is the single worst, multiple labor law offender in the U.S." 

Tall and reedy, with close-cropped fair hair and intense, weary features, McKenzie gestured at the men and women on the picket line. "These are not casual people," he said, indignantly. "These are highly qualified techs, and the Kravis refuses to recognize their skill level."

I spent most of my visit chatting with union member Terry Ponder, 61, a rangy, easygoing West Palm resident with a touch of South Carolina, his birthplace, in his voice. 

He's "a rigger," Ponder explained, and when he works he climbs around in the walls and ceilings of the Kravis and other auditoriums, rigging the lighting and sound equipment for shows. He's got a taste for heights, having worked as an ironworker "at 505 feet"--a lifetime ago at the Otis Elevator Company's testing facility in Connecticut.

If not correctly done, Ponder said, lighting and sound equipment can be "a danger to the actors and the audience." What he doesn't mention is that poorly trained workers can also be a danger to themselves, like the lighting tech who fell to his death on a Kravis job a little over two years ago.

When he works, Ponder says, he makes $28 an hour. Pretty fair pay, but the work comes and goes. There's health care benefits too, but that comes through the union. "We just want to get a contract signed and get to work here," he said. "We'll be out on this line as long as it takes."

Will the Kravis board comes to its senses? 

We don't expect much sympathy for organized labor from fat cat board members like Llwyd EcclestoneGeorge Elmore or Abe Gosman.  

But the Kravis has "honorary artistic board" members, like Burt Reynolds, who probably still has an Actor's Equity card, and Jimmy Buffett, who's supposed to be a good ol' boy at heart (Palm Beach mansion notwithstanding). Where are they?

As for ex-officio board members like West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams: Public officials owe it to their constituents to stand up to outlaws. 

Local supporters of the stagehands are planning a show of strength tomorrow at 1 p.m. in front of the Kravis on Okeechobee Boulevard, just west of City Place. The strikers will be out behind the stage door 24/7. They told me they'd welcome the public. 

[UPDATE: At around noon on Friday, the Palm Beach Post reported the two sides came to an agreement. Details were unavailable.]

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