A note about our support of most strikes at theatres/venues
As I write this, the stagehands of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Susanne Roberts Theatre have been on strike for three days. While the management of of PTC recognized the stagehands’ decision to have IATSE Local 8 represent them, and came up with an interim employment agreement, that agreement expired in October. The stagehands decided to strike after management failed to show up for another scheduled negotiation meeting. After 190 days without a full contract (which should have been created during the time the interim contract was in effect), the stagehands took to the streets.
(Full disclosure: I am a member of IATSE (though not in Local 8), and very happy to be a member of IATSE. But I was not always a member of IATSE, and have worked both union and non-union theatre jobs over my 20+ year career.)
Most of the jobs posted on BackstageJobs.com tend to be non-union jobs. This is due to the employers who tend to use the site. Most of the posted jobs which are more likely to be under a union contract are Stage Management and Designer jobs, just due to the nature of those job situations. Union stagehand jobs are posted here less often, as they open up less often, and tend to have a local pool of applicants to draw from: most of the time, they don’t need to post here to get qualified applicants. BackstageJobs.com takes no position as to whether or not you should be in a union, or if your venue should have a union contract. Those are your own decisions: we just want you to find good work.
I seriously don’t care if you or your theatre want or don’t want to have a union contract. That is your choice. Ideally, if every employer simply paid and treated their employees fairly, and had some type of written agreement as to what was expected of the employer and employee, then there would be no need for a third party to come in to represent either side. If you feel you are being paid and treated fairly, then I don’t see the need for you to join the union.
That said, we will support those who decide that they want union representation. And we will not be sympathetic to companies that attempt to ignore the rights of employees to organize (or those who ignore basic labor laws regardless of union affiliation). We will also not be sympathetic to those companies who try to replace legally striking employees.
Too often, stagehand work is treated as “less than” the other necessary jobs at a theatre. And right now, Philadelphia Theatre Company is demonstrating that their management feels this way about their stagehands. If they truly thought the work was important, they would have negotiated a contract before the interim one expired. If they respected and understood the important work of their stagehands, they wouldn’t be putting off a new meeting with their stagehands for 6 days after those stagehands walked off the job, necessitating the cancellation of rehearsals and public performances.
It astounds me that theatres which flout their Actors Equity affiliation (the actors union) will fight so vigorously to keep out IATSE. These same theatres will proudly discuss their LORT membership, or League of Chicago Theatres membership, or affiliation with the local Chamber of Commerce. What are these groups, if not unions for theatres and businesses?
Here are the most popular myths about IATSE I have heard:
“They will take over all the jobs, and the people who were there will be fired.”: No existing theatre can “go union” without a majority of the people in the positions the contract would cover voting for union representation. No-one loses their job because the theatre gets a union contract. What sense would it make for anyone to vote for union representation if they were just going to lose their job to an existing union member as a result?
“The theatre/vendor can’t afford union rates.”: There is no set “union rate,” and there is no set “union contract.” Every employer/venue is regarded differently, unless they ask for the same contract terms as other employer (such as the Broadway contract, and many hotel contracts). A non-profit theatre with a $5 million budget is not going to be asked to pay the same wages as a $50 million for-profit theatre. No one wants any employer to go out of business from labor costs. They just want the employees to get a fair wage in comparison to the money being spent and earned by the employer elsewhere.
“You will need a huge crew because of all the ridiculous rules.” This also falls under: every contract is different, according to the needs of the venue. Most people are surprised to find the crew numbers rarely go up when a theatre gets a union contract. Any work rules are set by the needs of the venue, guided by those who work there.
The union works for its members, not the members for “the union.” The union exists to represent and protect its members. It works for me, I don’t work for it. The union deals with any pay or work rules issues so I am free to do my job.
For the stagehands, having a union contract means they have the legal and personal support of a group made up of fellow professional stagehands. They don’t have to fight on their own to get an employer to pay them fairly, or on time, or follow basic labor laws. It does not always mean a pay increase. For many it simply means job security, in that they know that the employer will pay them at least X amount each day, and at least Y amount each year. It may mean that they know they won’t be forced to work 12 hour days without a break without being compensated for it, and that they have the legal support to demand that the work rules be followed. It may mean that you finally get health insurance and a retirement plan (either with the employer’s existing plans or through the union’s plans).
For the employer, it means only having to negotiate with the union representative, not 10 to 30 people individually, and not at random times as they are hired. No juggling what you promised to whom, or how much, or remembering when so-and-so was told they would get a raise. It is all there, black and white. It means that you have a given set of rules and expectations, and can point to them if an employee is not doing their job. The union wants to provide the best people. If they have a member that isn’t doing the job, they want to know about it.
In the end, a contract is a promise. It’s a promise that you will be paid fairly, and in proportion to the income/budget of the employer, for the work you do. It is a promise that those that have been employed by the theatre for years, and work every single show, can’t have their job taken away because a new executive director wants to “trim the budget” during his or her first year. It is a promise that you will know the conditions under which you will work and what is expected of you in your job.
Honestly, the last thing a theatre should want is to have upper management treat their stagehands with such little respect that they decide to go on strike. They don’t strike because they hate the theatre, they strike because they want the theatre to be better, but are ignored. Picket lines aren’t fun for anyone: not for the stagehands, not for the rest of the theatre’s staff, and not for the audience. Everyone would rather be doing the show: don’t make it more difficult to present the show by insulting those who actually do work of the show.
And to all theatres currently in the midst of contract talks or strikes: striking stagehands don’t “break.“ After all, they are used to dealing with crazy diva actors, directors, and designers. They are used to hauling and assembling heavy loads. They are used to extreme heights and crawling in the dark to operate some custom piece of gear in confined spaces. They are used to long periods of extreme boredom followed by sudden frantic working. And they are used to doing it all for 14 hour days, day after day. They’ve not only been to every production you’ve done, but every single performance of them, even the terrible ones. They are arguably more dedicated to your theatre than your audience. Walking a picket line isn’t going to “break” them.
–These are my opinions, based on my 20+ years working behind-the-scenes. They may not necessarily be the same as the official IATSE positions on these subjects.
As I said before, it doesn’t matter to me if you are union or non-union. I’ve worked both, and had good and bad experiences with and without a contract. Your opinions and decisions regarding union representation should be based on facts, not myths and fear.