Producers and Union Stay Mum as Contract Deadline Looms

News   Producers and Union Stay Mum as Contract Deadline Looms With only hours left before their current contract expires, The American Federation of Musicians' Local 802 and the League of American Theatres and Producers notifed the press that the two sides have imposed a "media blackout."

The League released a statement the afternoon of March 6 saying the silence would last 24 hours beginning 2 PM Thursday. Such a "blackout" would necessarily take them past the March 6 midnight deadline when the contract is due to end.

The call "not to discuss with the media their ongoing contract negotiations" comes just a day after The Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds (COBUG), representing 14 unions and guilds on Broadway, issued a statement of support for Local 802. 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. She added, however, that no substantive progress had been made on the major issues. The extension temporarily lifted the specter of a musicians strike, a prospect which has set Broadway's nerves on edge for the last few weeks.

Calls to both the League and Local 802 were not returned by press time on March 5, but reports have 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 were. 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.

The contract extension is not without precedent. In 1998, the contract between Local 802 and the League passed its March 8 expiration date and talks continued without a strike or work stoppage. A tentative agreement with producers on a new agreement was finally reached on March 14, nearly a week later. If all goes well, it looks as if the current tussle could conclude the same way.

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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. At the time, Jed Bernstein, president of the League, would not characterize the talks beyond saying they had been "intense." He added however that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, "the show will go on. We have a responsibility to Broadway, to the audiences, and, frankly, in this economy, to the city."

Management and labor are trying to ward off a strike by pit musicians, which would cripple, but perhaps not halt Broadway musicals. Broadway producers have all along contended that they are prepared to employ so called "virtual orchestras" to keep their shows going, should musicians walk out. Most musical productions currently on Broadway rehearsed with technological music-makers this week.