Pickets Line Up in Front of Theatres as Talks Between Producers and Musicians Union Continue

News   Pickets Line Up in Front of Theatres as Talks Between Producers and Musicians Union Continue Picket lines made up of members of the American Federation of Musicians' Local 802 have begun to form in front of selected Broadway theatres, as talks between the union and Broadway producers continue.
Picketers protesting virtual orchestras Friday morning outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Picketers protesting virtual orchestras Friday morning outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

With the passing of the Friday, March 7 strike deadline at 12:01 AM, Local 802 posted to its website a notice that the Broadway musicians had gone on strike. A spokesperson for Local 802 told Playbill On-Line that the union planned to begin picketing all Broadway theatre housing musicals at 5 PM. However, following a late-morning union press conference, labor officials began handing out picket signs reading "Save Live Music on Broadway."

As of noon Friday, a few protesters had appeared in front of the musicals Movin' Out and Beauty and the Beast.

Talks between the League of American Theatres and Producers and Local 802 will continue this afternoon. The League called a press conference for 11 AM. The union countered that with an 11:15 conference of its own.

The two sides are still deeply split on the issue of minimums, the number of musicians the union mandates producers must use for Broadway musicals. At its press conference, the League said it was willing to accept minimums of 14 at the big musical houses (the number is currently 26). The union wants to bring the count down by only one or two players and rejected the producers' offer.

What will actually happen at curtain time Friday night is anybody's guess. On March 4, The Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds (COBUG), representing 14 unions and guilds on Broadway, issued a statement of support for Local 802, and those organizations appear to be lining up behind the musicians' union. Alan Eisenberg, executive director of Actors Equity, said the AFL-CIO International has endorsed the strike and has asked the actors union to respect it. An emergency meeting of the Equity council was set for noon to vote on the International's submission, with a press conference to follow. Eisenberg professed himself "surprised" and "disappointed" that the labor talks had come to their present pass.

Furthermore, there was some question whether the powerful stagehands union would cooperate with producers' wishes to install so-called "virtual orchestras" to replace the union players. Various sources had stagehands refusing to handle the equipment.

A spokesperson for Local 802 told Playbill On-Line that there were protests in front of certain theatres this morning as the technology was brought in. It was not clear whether stagehands transported the equipment.

Jed Bernstein of the League said the virtual orchestras will be used tonight, saying "There will be problems tonight. But it will be better tomorrow and better on Monday."

The backing of the strike by either Equity or the stagehands union would appear to effectively shut down all Broadway musical houses.

Bernstein said that audience members could ask for refunds or ticket exchanges is they objected to performances with canned music.

*

COBUG represents 14 unions and guilds on Broadway. The Coalition includes unions representing actors, musicians, playwrights, directors and choreographers, to set, costume and lighting designers, stagehands, ushers and ticket-takers, box office personnel, wardrobe, hairstylists, porters, press agents and company managers.

The statement of support said: "The Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds is very concerned about the lack of agreement in the Musicians' negotiations with the League.
* We support the preservation of live music on Broadway.
* Our memberships have expressed strong support for the
Musicians.
* The Coalition requests that both sides continue negotiations.
* We also request that the League not rehearse with virtual orchestras or pre-recorded music while negotiations continue."

The old pact had been set up to end on March 2, but the end date was pushed back by the union late last Sunday. A spokesperson for the union called the move a "good faith" gesture inspired by the fact that the two sides were still talking.

Reports had the two sides inching toward a compromise on the touchy issue of minimums—the number of musicians the union contract mandates producers hire for each show. All along, the producers have fought to eliminate minimums, while the union has tried to keep them where they are.

According to a press release from Actors' Equity, "Local 802 cited progress in negotiations concerning the minimums as a reason for the four-day extension. Originally, the League said it wanted to eliminate the musicians minimums entirely, but revised its position on Sunday." The League reportedly suggested the number of 7 as the new minimum, a number Local 802 rejected.

"This is obviously a huge and dramatic shift in our position," said League president Jed Bernstein at the time. "We continue to be hopeful that we can get to a good place for both of us."

The New York Post reported March 5 that a reduction of the minimum number from 26 to 18 was a possibility. The daily also said the producers would gain more flexibility in "special situations" clause. The provision has allowed showmen to petition for a lesser number of musicians for their shows from time to time. Very often, producers have gotten their wish in the past, winning smaller orchestras for unique and unusual musicals. The Post's Michael Riedel speculated that in the future every show on Broadway would separately negotiate its own minimum number of players.

Members of Local 802 of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York voted in favor of a strike authorization early evening, March 1. The vote was 482 to 15.