Broadway Musicians Take a Stand

Coalition of Unions Staves Off Producers' Vow to End Minimums

Volume CIII, No. 4April, 2003

Mikael Elsila

There was a point during the final, all-night Broadway negotiations when members of the bargaining team were frozen in silent shock.

That was the moment they realized that, under intense pressure from the mayor’s appointed mediator, they would have to settle for a contract that reduced the number of minimums on Broadway, down to 19 or 18 in the 13 largest theatres.

The mediator had implied that if there wasn’t a deal that night, he would “name names” in public. That is, he would say, “It’s Local 802’s fault that there was no deal.” And support from the public – and other unions – would wither fast.

There were no words to say for several minutes. After bargaining all night, the musicians knew that they were getting the best deal they could. They also knew they would have to face the potent wrath of some of their friends and colleagues.

And now, even though the new minimums are locked in and protected for ten years, the feeling of profound disappointment hasn’t gone away for some.

But for many others, the disappointment is tempered by a profound respect for what was born from the bitter struggle.

The musicians’ strike of 2003 will go down in history as the strike that united Broadway.

In a stunning display of collective action, Broadway musicians struck their shows on March 7. And three hours before shows were to open, actors and stagehands announced they would not cross 802’s picket line.

Janitors, hair stylists and makeup artists, ticket sellers, stage directors and choreographers, wardrobe workers and playwrights – who are all unionized on Broadway – also supported the musicians and didn’t cross.

It was the first collective strike in the history of Broadway.

“Musicians know that striking is the most serious thing they can do to defend themselves,” said President Bill Moriarity. “We made this incredible decision because of an attack on our very essence. In the end, we defended the concept of live music on Broadway even under tremendous pressure from the mayor’s office to concede minimums. We got the very best contract possible. And we ignited a coalition of theatre unions: that was the true meaning of this strike.”

Without musicians, Broadway producers and theatre owners could have tried to run their musicals with “virtual orchestras” – trumped up synthesizers and samplers – on the chance that audiences would not have noticed or cared.

But without actors, stagehands and technical staff, the producers were forced to cancel all musicals for four days.

“I found that the solidarity and unification of the rank and file was something we’ve never seen before and hopefully we will see again,” said Mary Whitaker, a violinist in Thoroughly Modern Millie. “I think we were completely undercut by money, power and greed. Producers were determined to break the backs of the unions. We need to make sure we are prepared to go to bat for our brothers and sisters in Equity and IATSE, who were vital to our show of strength.”

The final negotiations were mediated by former schools chancellor Frank Macchiarola, at the request of Mayor Bloomberg’s office. Musicians and management spent all night at Gracie Mansion making a deal.

The deal was shaped by Macchiarola who pushed hard on both sides.

“When the mayor puts his office on the line for a settlement, there will probably be a settlement,” said Moriarity. The last Broadway strike in 1975 was also settled through intervention from the mayor’s office, as were the Broadway negotiations of 1966.

“I was on the strike committee in 1975,” Gayle Dixon, a violinist in Phantom of the Opera, wrote in an e-mail message to the union. “I was also on the Executive Board for many years. Sure, I’m disappointed in the outcome – I had a higher number in mind also. But I don’t know whether a more skillful or tougher negotiator could have gotten more. After all, the producers had no intention of negotiating with us – they came out offering zero.”

Marshall Coid, a violinist in Chicago, agrees. “There is an increasing disrespect for all workers – beyond just artists – from the wealthy, who are exercising power just for the sake of exercising power,” said Coid. “People are getting increasing control over the arts who have absolutely no concern for the art form itself – only how they can make money from it, in the short term. Even the mayor’s involvement was about sacrificing art for the sake of short-term economic recovery.”

While issues such as pay raises and health and safety were also on the table, musicians struck Broadway in order to protect the minimum number of live musicians required in each theatre. At the beginning of the negotiations on Feb. 4, producers had proposed eliminating minimums altogether.

That didn’t happen. The tentative deal reached was a minimum of 19 musicians at six of the largest theatres and 18 at the other seven largest. There were also changes in minimums in five other smaller theatres.

Shows that are now on Broadway – or were set to open soon – will retain the minimums that they already have. Two theatres which were not part of the League – the New Amsterdam and the Ford Center – will now have minimums of 19.

But any new theatre that is built will come in with a maximum of 19.

Both parties agreed that the new minimums will hold for ten years. This is a significant stabilizing force for the next contract talks because it means that minimums will not be subject to debate in the immediate future.

But it is undeniable that the contract will cost jobs. If you take the previous minimums and simply subtract the new minimums, you come up with 93 fewer minimum chairs. This is a significant percentage of Broadway work. However, the actual number of jobs affected is probably less, because most smaller theatres operate above minimums much of the time.

“The meaning of the strike was that three unions came together and said ‘enough is enough,'” said Ben Herrington, a trombonist in Urintetown. “We came together and prevented producers from basically destroying the art form. They wanted to get rid of the musicians entirely. We saved a good 75 percent of the musical heart. But we lost a great deal as well.”

The four-year deal calls for average annual pay raises of 23/4 percent. The union fought off an attack on pension and managed to maintain current pension and health levels.

The deal also includes new language on special situations, which is the system by which producers can apply to hire below minimums. The new language changes the makeup of the special situations panel. The new panel will have two reps from the League, two from 802, and either one or three neutral parties. There are also new, subtle guidelines which will guide the panel in whether or not to allow a special situation. Most believe the new language will make it easier for producers to win special situations.

But in a major coup for the union, the new language prohibits walkers. This takes away ammunition from the producers, who had tried to use the specter of walkers to make the union look bad in the public eye. Similarly, the new language also prevents producers from hiring non-musicians to fulfill minimums, a tactic that producers used at Saturday Night Fever.

“For me, this strike was the clarion call to save live music in New York City and around the country,” said Mike Ishii, a French hornist in 42nd Street. “I think it was a rallying point. Even though I’m bitterly disappointed with the outcome, I’m deeply reassured by the resolve of the membership. I have only praise and appreciation to my colleagues and leaders of the union. And the fact that we came from being a group of separate, often self-centered individuals, and we transformed into a unified, justice-minded movement – it brought together all the unions together on Broadway for the first time ever – it signified a shift.”

The tentative agreement contains new health and safety language. The employer must evaluate safe levels of materials, participate in a union-employer committee, and ultimately pay for the cost of health and safety remedies. Another win in this category is that the union-employer committee isn’t required to exclusively use OSHA standards in determining health and safety levels. Instead, the committee can use standards that are better from a worker’s point of view – like those of NIOSH.

Another major victory for 802 is that music copyists will remain covered by the contract. Producers had sought to remove them from the unit.

To win the settlement, hundreds of musicians, actors, stagehands and other Broadway workers, walked picket lines in front of their shows. They were joined by Council Speaker Gifford Miller, council member Christine Quinn, Actors’ Equity President Patrick Quinn and others.

“How do you keep Broadway alive? You keep live music,” said Councilmember Quinn, who marched in front of Phantom of the Opera on March 10.

Two days earlier, musicians had staged a mock New Orleans style funeral in Times Square, marking the “death of live music on Broadway.” The rally attracted hundreds of performers and supporters.

Henry Fanelli, a harpist in Phantom of the Opera, was one of them. Fanelli said, “In spite of the anger, frustration and ultimate disappointment with the final contract numbers, I have to say that when the actors and stagehands joined on the picket lines, when we marched through Times Square and saw the incredible support we had form the public, and when – at the final rally – we had all of the unions pledging solidarity, that weekend was the most thrilling and inspiring three days of my career if not entire my life.”

Actors’ Equity was one those unions pledging solidarity. “Our members have made it clear that they do not wish to perform to virtual orchestras. Our members also believe that live music is essential on Broadway, and that minimums are appropriate and necessary,” reported Equity in a written statement, which was signed by Equity President Patrick Quinn and Executive Director Alan Eisenberg.

“Actors now stand with musicians who stand with stagehands, hair and makeup, porters – everyone who works in that building stand together,” said Quinn.

Hairspray star Harvey Fierstein spoke out at the actors’ press conference. “This is a strike over principles,” Fierstein said.

“Honoring the line is for the good of the industry and our membership,” said Edward McConway, president of IATSE (Local 1), the stagehands’ union. “Even though we are concerned about the theatre-going public, the state of our industry and our city, we are a union and a union supports a union picket line. It’s an issue of conscience.”

AFTRA National President John P. Connolly also sent a letter of support to President Moriarity. “We join you in speaking out against the elimination of jobs for performers,” wrote President Connolly.

Sixteen City Council members signed a letter urging the producers to settle fairly with 802. In the letter, the council members wrote that musicians “deserve to see the fruits of their labor and to share in Broadway’s success.”

The Central Labor Council, state AFL-CIO and national AFL-CIO all supported the campaign, as well as other city unions. Many lent their inflatable balloon rats to supplement Local 802’s 12-footer. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was prepared to speak at a rally in support of musicians on March 11, but the strike was settled earlier that day.

Out of all the supporters, audience members were perhaps the ones that took the situation most personally. They were outraged to learn that live musicians could have been replaced by electronics.

“We came from Atlanta, Georgia to celebrate my daughter’s 16th birthday,” said Paula Moore, an audience member. “We had tickets for six shows. If musicians are replaced by virtual orchestras, we will never come again.”

“I absolutely support live music,” said Nicole Montemayor.

“I want live music,” said Cathy Amanto.

Musicians later learned that producers had spent up to $100,000 per show to set up the virtual orchestra technology. Producers had even taxed themselves ten cents per ticket to raise funds for the negotiations.

On the other side, the union made $1 million available in strike benefits. Moreover, 802’s executive board decided to share benefits with all strikers – including actors, stagehands, wardrobe workers, hairdressers, porters and janitors.

Together, all of the Broadway workers make up COBUG, the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds.

The final deal still needs to be voted up by 802’s executive board and then has to pass the most important hurdle – ratification by the Broadway musicians themselves. Both votes were pending as Allegro went to press.

“I hope enough people realize that while there are things about this agreement which are somewhat disappointing, we did at least buy some time in this age of electronics and corporate greed,” said Eric DeGioia, violinist at Thoroughly Modern Millie. “The fight for the preservation of live music has just begun.”

If musicians voted down the contract, they would have to accept management’s last offer, which included minimums of 13, or go on strike again.

The Broadway negotiating committee was Russ Anixter, John Arbo, Nancy Billman, Ethan Fein, Tino Gagliardi, Maura Giannini, Emily Grishman, Lori Miller, Jan Mullen, David Nyberg, Chris Olness, Clay Ruede and Dean Thomas. They were assisted by President Bill Moriarity, Financial Vice President Tina Hafemeister, Assistant to the President Bill Dennison, Assistant Director David Lennon, Senior Broadway Rep Joe Delia and 802 legal counsel Lenny Leibowitz.