Although the show could still go on with replacement musicians or electronically synthesized music, a more remote scenario could also occur: Other unionized Radio City employees could refuse to cross the picket line, threatening to shut down a show that has entertained kids and adults for seven decades.
The labor cliffhanger is not likely to end until opening day, when spectators from around the world hope to start lining up for a show that carries ticket prices of up to $250. Union members not directly involved in a labor dispute typically wait until the last moment to play their trump card – refusing to cross the line.
The orchestra's five-year contract expired in May, and meetings all summer failed to produce an agreement with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians on salary and overtime issues.
On Wednesday, the battle reached a high pitch at a Manhattan rally, with hundreds of musicians and supporters staging a boisterous, music-filled protest on Sixth Avenue in front of the hall, behind police barricades.
"Don't let Cablevision $teal Christmas," read the words on red and green T-shirts worn by the protesters. Cablevision owns Madison Square Garden, the Knicks, the Rangers and the Radio City Entertainment company that owns the show.
Radio City Entertainment released a statement saying it "has offered our musicians an extremely fair contract proposal, following what is already the most lucrative musicians' contract in the industry. The contract includes increases in salary and benefits and fully protects the existing overtime system. They have rejected that proposal and walked away from the table."
Michael Cordova, a company spokeswoman, said that in the event of a strike, "we are exploring all our options. We're reaching out to orchestra musicians all over the world."
The company reportedly approached out-of-work New Orleans musicians who were in New York recently playing a Hurricane Katrina fund-raiser. But they declined after being told of the labor dispute.
At Wednesday's rally, each speaker was introduced with a fanfare played by Radio City brass players. Above the Radio City marquee, an inflated cougar with bared teeth faced the protesters – a counter-reference to the blown-up rat that often accompanies New York union protests.
"This is about union-busting by a corporate giant digging into the pockets of the musicians," said trombonist Mark Johansen, who works to support his three children. "At every negotiating session, we've been met with threats: 'If you don't accept this or that, we'll hire other musicians or use tape. Take it or leave it.' There's no negotiating."
He said Radio City Entertainment is trying to cut the musicians' base pay of $133 per show; that is about $40 less than standard Broadway pays, Johansen said. At the height of the Christmas season, the orchestra works as many as six 90-minute shows every day - at overtime pay beyond the first two. The musicians must play at least 12 shows a week.
On average, Johansen said, a musician doing 150 of about 200 shows in the run would make about $25,000; orchestra members also receive very basic year-round health benefits.
"They work like dogs – once a year like the people who sell Christmas trees. For many, this is their main job, their livelihood," said Cenovia Cummins, a violinist who fills for the musicians during the 10 weeks. "Corporations are taking over tradition, and their bottom line is money. They don't understand what a gift they have here in this old-style vaudeville show they're destroying."
Union members said the company had agreed to keep the contract's overtime clause - while in effect cutting their salaries. The musicians said Radio City Entertainment in fact offered an increase of 1.5 percent while they asked for about a 3 percent cost-of-living raise. But the company said a second orchestra would be hired, which would mean the musicians' income would be cut in half, they said.
Radio City Entertainment would not give details of their offer, saying they do not comment on negotiations.
The president of Radio City Entertainment, Jay Marciano, calls the union "greedy." And, he warns, "there are new synthesizers that can recreate orchestras," producing "canned music" for anything from "Silent Night" to the high-kick tunes.
The unionized Rockettes reached their contract agreement last week.
By Verena Dobnik