The Union Rat Descends Upon Gramercy Park

Edwin Booth
A dramatization: New York's infamous union rat sneaks up on actor Edwin Booth, as painted by the great John Singer Sargent in a famous work the Players Club was forced to auction off after recent (unrelated) financial and legal difficulties. Photo: Photo Illustration: Getty Images, John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery.

In 1888, Edwin Booth, the famed Shakespearean actor, along with Mark Twain, General William Tecumseh Sherman, and a slew of other distinguished American notables from the nineteenth century, formed their own club where they could hang out and smoke cigars and sip brandy and yap about the dramatic arts. They also created a fund to help struggling actors. They called themselves "The Players," and their club was run out Booth's old townhouse at 16 Gramercy Park, where it is still in operation.

In the past few days, the club's picturesque Stanford White façade, facing the tony private park, has been partially blocked by a sight uncommon in this quiet residential neighborhood: the union rat. It's a sign of lingering troubles within.

“It’s a deep dish,” says one of the club’s frustrated members. “The place is being horribly mismanaged. Nobody knows what they are doing, and the board is a rubber stamp.”

The latest drama there (har-har) involves a dispute between the Players’ choice to have Elegant Affairs, a caterer from Long Island, run their food and beverage service. The company didn’t want to keep the Players’ longtime staff and fired them to take on cheaper non-union help. “It’s no secret, we’ve had financial difficulties, especially in dealing with our food and beverage service,” says John Martello, executive director at the Players. “The one way we thought we could cease the losses was to outsource to a private catering company.” But the company the club hired, Elegant Affairs, of Long Island, didn’t want to use the union’s waiters, some of whom Martello says were making about $35 an hour (benefits included). The non-union help, he said, was making about $19 an hour.

Once the employees were fired, the union, Local 6, sought to remedy the firings and seek arbitration. On January 15, the arbitrator found the Players had breached their contract with the union. "I conclude that the club breached its agreement with the Union," the arbitrator, Ira Hogin, concluded. “I find the club's breach of contract motivated solely by economic gain from unlawful subcontracting, to the detriment of long-term employees who have suddenly been cast out of their jobs and replaced…"

The Players felt the decision was unfair and have appealed it in New York State Supreme Court. As they appeal the case, the workers have not been offered their jobs back. Hence the picketing.

“This stuff is never pleasant,” Martello says. “They’re doing what they need to do, and we’re doing what we need to do.”

Martello says Booth and the Players, who actually helped in the creation of a union for actors, would have understood the club’s decision to fire the union help and their long-term employees. “Edwin Booth founded this club for a purpose, with an eye towards actors and elevating their place in society. It was important to him that the social activity of this club perpetuate. And we’re doing everything we can to ensure that that happens.” —Geoffrey Gray