Musicians reach accord ending strike threats

The strike threat that cast a cloud over Broadway in recent days has cleared up, in the wake of Saturday’s agreement between musicians and producers that ended fears of a walkout in the crucial weeks leading up to the Tony Awards.

A strike would have “hurt the whole city’s tourism, not just the musicals,” said Jeffrey Seller, producer of the Broadway musical “Rent.”

Broadway’s 450 pit musicians backed down from strike threats Saturday after theater producers promised to hire health specialists to study working conditions in the pit, while the union made concessions on another key issue in exchange for getting a 20% pay raise over five years, a union rep said Sunday.

In addition, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians of New York won an agreement from the League of American Theaters & Producers not to reduce the size of the orchestras and to back off from putting a maximum cap on contributions to the union’s pension fund.

At such long-running shows as “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” producers would have used computerized soundtracks to keep performances going, though canned music (or at least the notion of canned music) generally is thought to be unpopular among ticket-buyers.

The union decided last week to put a strike proposal to the vote after Broadway producers balked at the union’s demands for a 12% pay bump over three years. Broadway’s producers also wanted to cut costs by using part of the union’s pension funds to defray musicians’ paid sick days, Alan Jaffe, chief negotiator for Broadway’s producers, said last week. Neither Jaffe nor other producer reps could be reached for comment Sunday.

One of the biggest issues for the union was working conditions, specifically the use of chemicals in special effects such as smoke and fog, said Alva Hunt, a woodwind player with “Beauty and the Beast,” who is a member of the union’s Broadway theater advisory committee.

Hunt said it is common for producers to mix a powdery chemical, glycol, with dry ice to keep the fog floating longer, which means it gets inhaled by musicians in the pit in shows such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Les Miserables,” “Titanic” and “Jekyll and Hyde.” The producers agreed to hire some analysts to work on the problem, Hunt said.

Hunt said the pay raise agreed upon in the deal was “not spectacular,” particularly as the bulk of the 20% will be paid toward the end of the five years. In the first year, the musicians will only get a 2% raise.

To get the raise, the musicians had to agree to get less advance notice on work schedules and to give up the right to send substitutes, Hunt said. Both are important concessions for the musicians, who often augment their income by doing outside gigs.

Saturday’s vote by the 450 musicians is not the final word. An additional 300 musicians who are only part-time on Broadway will vote by mail over the next week.

For most members, the deal initially represents an additional $40 a week on top of the $1,300 average wage earned by the musicians now.

Of the 18 musicals playing on Broadway, two of the major successes — Disney’s “The Lion King” and Livent’s “Ragtime” — would not have been affected by a strike. Livent has struck a separate deal with the union’s musicians that is valid into 1999; Disney has a similar arrangement for “Lion King.” (Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is included in the overall union deal because the Palace Theater is part of the theaters and producers league.)

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