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Unions Rally as Musicians' Strike Continues logo

Members of Local 802 and unions sympathetic to
their cause picketing in Duffy Square this weekend
(Photo: © Matthew Murray)
With no further negotiations scheduled as of this afternoon, members of the Broadway musicians', actors', and stagehands' unions held a rally at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center on West 43rd Street today to urge the League of American Theatres and Producers back to the bargaining table to resolve the dispute that has led to a strike by the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802. The rally occurred as performances of all Broadway musicals -- except Cabaret at Studio 54, which operates under a separate contact -- remained canceled for the third day in a row.

Attended by an estimated 700 people, the rally was followed by a press conference. Denis Hughes of the AFL-CIO described the strike as "a historic event" and called for "solidarity in the entertainment industry in New York City and New York State. We're asking the producers to come to the table, to understand what is at stake," Hughes added. "Broadway is the center of tourism in New York City."

The center of the dispute is that Broadway producers want to eliminate or drastically reduce the minimum number of musicians contractually designated to be employed in various Broadway theaters when those theaters house musicals, whereas Local 802 wants to preserve the minimums as they are or keep them as high as possible. Negotiations broke down on Friday when the League made a "final offer" of a 15-musician minimum for the largest Broadway houses, where minimums are currently set in the 24- to 26-musician range.

The League had initially planned for Broadway musicals to continue performing with the accompaniment of "virtual orchestra" technology in the event of a musicians' strike, but those plans were flummoxed when members of Actors' Equity Association and IATSE (the stagehands' union) refused to cross the musicians' picket lines on Friday evening. According to Maria Somma, president of ATPAM (the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers), "Local 802 has opened up its strike funds to members of all of the unions who might be affected by this."

Following today's rally and press conference, Bill Moriarity, president of Local 802, confirmed that "there were no talks yesterday or today, and there are no further talks scheduled at this moment. The last offer that the producers gave us was termed a final offer, and they have continued to describe it as a final offer. It's difficult for anybody to negotiate into a number that's described as final."

According to Moriarity, "it's not an unusual occurrence in labor negotiations" for there to come a point during a labor dispute when talks cease for a time. "In my first negotiation in 1993, we were away from the table for four weeks," he told TheaterMania, "but there was no strike at that time. Here, there's a strike, and that gives this thing extra weight. Broadway is one of the cornerstones of the city's economy, because it's not just the shows: It affects restaurants, hotels, and the whole tourist business. So I'd be very surprised if something doesn't happen, at least in terms of a meeting, within the next 24 hours."

Giant inflatable rats such as this one were
set up in the theater district by the musicians’ union
as its strike against Broadway producers began
(Photo: © Matthew Murray)
There has been speculation that Broadway musical actors and stagehands might eventually return to work if the musicians' strike drags on; but Patrick Quinn, president of Actors' Equity Association, said during today's press conference that the union's members will never perform to virtual orchestras. "Both sides can have all the rhetoric they want in the press," Quinn told TheaterMania afterwards, "but nothing will get accomplished unless these people are sitting at a table and talking. As Bill [Moriarity] said, it's not a complex negotiation. What I mean is that, sometimes, you're in a difficult negotiation where you just can't find the language; you can't wrap it up because you have to cross every 't" and dot every 'i.' But this one isn't like that. If they could just come to an agreement on the numbers, they could wrap it up in an hour."

Although the musicians' contract with the League officially ended at midnight on Sunday, March 2, the strike deadline had been extended to midnight on Thursday, March 6. Asked why the deadlines couldn't be extended indefinitely, with talks continuing while performances of Broadway musicals continued, Quinn replied: "Equity actually thought about that on Friday and started to discuss it. The difficulty was that we would have to have the approval of Local 802, because they were already on strike. If we said to Local 802, 'Look, we want you to go back to the table and we'll keep performing,' who would have won? We really wanted a compromise -- I wanted to be Jimmy Carter at Camp David -- but every time I meant to make a move, it would have favored one of the two sides. I'm not a disinterested party."

One thing everyone seems to agree upon is that a tremendous amount of disappointment and ill will is being caused by the cancellation of performances of so many shows. "It's unfortunate," said Quinn, who then corrected himself: "No, 'unfortunate' is a lame word for what this is. There were kids crying at Les Miz the other night when they got off their bus and found out that there wasn't going to be a show. You can't not be touched by that."

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