Broadway musicians strike a new tune
by Greg Butterfield When you think of organised labour's power, you probably don't picture workers playing clarinets, trombones and French horns. But the 300-plus members of American Federation of Musicians Local 802 have just flexed their muscles in a big way. On March 7, a multinational group of women and men who provide live entertainment nightly to thousands of Broadway theatregoers in New York went on strike against the League of American Theaters and Producers. After a powerful rally near Times Square members set up picket lines in front of 18 Broadway musicals, including hits like "The Lion King," "The Producers," "Mamma Mia," "Hairspray" and "42nd Street." Local 802 members said they were fighting for their jobs and the very survival of their union. Broadway bosses made their union-busting intentions plain in contract talks. They wanted to abolish the union's hard-won guaranteed minimum of 24-26 live musicians for each Broadway musical. Producers wanted to cut the minimum to just six musicians. The union said this is just the start of the theatre bosses' plan to do away with live music on Broadway and replace live orchestras with pre- recorded soundtracks. As the strike deadline neared, production companies like Walt Disney Co — with three musicals on Broadway, "Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aida" — forced actors, stage hands, dressers and others to rehearse the shows to canned music. "New York is the pinnacle of live music," said Brad Gemeinhardt, a musician picketing outside "Thoroughly Modern Millie." "We can't really stand for them lowering the quality of the product at all." Actors and other Broadway workers agree. They joined Local 802 in a petition campaign to "Keep music alive on Broadway". The campaign won support from famous actors like Bebe Neuwirth, Bette Midler, Chita Rivera and Joel Grey. Local 802 had authorised a strike starting on March 1, but held off almost a week in hopes of reaching an agreement. Then on March 7 the bosses handed President Bill Moriarity a "final offer" demanding that the minimum number of musicians be cut to 15 per show. The strike was on. To the bosses' surprise, other Broadway unions, including Actors Equity and the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, refused to cross the Musicians picket lines. Instead they took up signs and picketed alongside their union sisters and brothers. It was a new and exciting kind of production for Broadway workers, who've been forced to accept many take-backs since the 9/11 attacks, all to save profits for theatres and producers. The League of American Theaters and Producers was forced to cancel all weekend shows for 18 musicals on the weekend of March 7 — 9, costing them an estimated $US4.5 million in lost revenue. Management's stonewalling also cost area restaurants, stores and hotels an estimated $US7 million in the strike's first three days. On Monday negotiations resumed and by Tuesday morning a settlement was announced. The minimum number of musicians in 13 key shows was set at 18 to 19. Most important, however, was the timetable. While the contract is for four years, this minimum holds for 10 years. The musicians are now playing "Solidarity Forever."