Representatives of management and the musicians' union at the Kennedy Center are scheduled to engage in marathon talks today in preparation for a meeting and contract proposal vote by the union's membership at 6 p.m.
The final negotiations and the orchestra's vote could conceivably lead to a strike tonight -- which probably would close down the Kennedy Center -- though spokesmen for both sides said they hope this can be averted. The unresolved issues are not primarily economic, but instead are related to the status of the orchestra and its members.
"With a little give, I think it can be resolved," said attorney Leonard Leibowitz, chief negotiator for the musicians.
"We're not hot for a strike," said one member of the orchestra, "but we do have to stand up for our feelings and our goals. We are just trying to make an orchestra of ourselves."
"Nobody wants to strike," said Sam Jack Kaufman, head of the musicians' union. "Nobody wins in a strike. I hope we settle, for their good and ours." He added that the musicians have been working without a contract since Aug. 31.
Tonight's meeting "might end in a vote either to accept a new contract or to strike," according to oboist Eugene Montooth, chairman of the orchestra's negotiating committee. "We can't put this off any longer," he said. "If there is no movement, not only will there be a strike, it might start at 7 o'clock. We have no midnight deadline."
Although the negotiations are on the terms of technical points such as work rules, substitutions and audition policies (which can be sharply different for a pit orchestra as compared to an onstage orchestra like the NSO), Montooth said he feels the underlying issue is "the Kennedy Center's lack of a feeling of responsibility toward the orchestra."
"They have a hard time understanding these issues," he said. "They don't even understand that they're insulting us."
Three other contracts (stagehands, box office and wardrobe) are apparently near final settlement and signature. "We don't see any roadblocks, unless the musicians vote to go out," said Jack Ryan, a spokesman for the stagehands' union who has been sitting in on negotiations for all the unions' contracts. But if the musicians do reject the contract, their decision could close down the Kennedy Center.
"The dancers have their bags packed," said a spokesman for the American Ballet Theatre, for which the orchestra is currently playing. He said the entire company is mobilized to minimize the possible effects of a strike. Only the scenery and costumes necessary for each evening's performances are being kept in the Kennedy Center, because it might be impossible to remove them if a strike is called.
Tonight's opening of the new production of Du rrenmatt's "The Physicists" could be in question, as well as performances of the National Symphony Orchestra and The Washington Opera. Ryan said the stagehands have made no commitment or plans, but that he would expect them to honor a musicians' picket line.
Spokesmen for both sides agree that substantive agreement has been reached on basic money questions, with an 8-percent increase for the first year and 9 percent for the second and third. But problems remain in what a management spokesman called "a couple of administrative issues that do have economic and artistic overtones." Some orchestra members refer to these same issues in terms of their basic identity and security as an orchestra.
Thomas R. Kendrick, director of operations at the Kennedy Center, said the center's management "genuinely cares about the orchestra's future and its well-being, and we intend to make every effort to keep talking, and to solve any failures in communication. We are confident any remaining problems can be resolved to the satifaction of both parties."