The Problem With (Stagehands) Unions

Empty Stage

Empty Stage

I’ve been a member of three union organizations in my life, and I’ve written about some of my experiences. First was International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 337 (Utica), a projectionists local. I didn’t join to gain work, or for representation in my work environment (my cinema was non-union); I simply wanted to be around the best projectionists I’d ever met, hear their stories, and absorb their wisdom. Next, I belonged to IATSE Local 128, Utica stagehands. I was already working in theater, and union membership meant I’d be higher on the call list. Finally, I was a founding member of Independent Theatrical Employees of America (ITEA) Local 1 (Utica), after IATSE named the members of Local 128’s executive committee in a lawsuit and (among other things) falsely accused me, as treasurer, of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve had my ups and downs with unions; I also have a couple of business degrees on top of 25 years of stage work, so I’ve thought a lot about labor issues.

When I joined the stagehands in the early 1990s, I thought the organization was a win-win proposition. The Stanley Theater was tricky back then, with a loading door 13-1/2 feet above the stage floor (everything had to come in via rope). The stagehands provided a skilled labor force that largely understood the unique requirements of putting up a show in the space. In return, the union guaranteed workers a minimum paycheck. Stage work in most cities is only part time, and stagehands often take vacation days from other jobs to work on shows. Back then, hourly rates ranged from 8.50-14.50, and many workers only helped load in and load out. They’d be called at 8:00 AM, then have to return at 11:00 PM – the union’s minimum call rules guaranteed them a paycheck of at least $68 (no payroll taxes were deducted – for many years, the payment was cash.) Obviously, a show promoter only wants to pay for time actually worked – but it would have been much more difficult to find people willing to take a vacation day, start early and stay late, for just a few hours at 8.50/hr.

Now, that’s the simplest definition of the win-win proposition. Unions codify their work rules in a contract, which is signed by the venue and renewed periodically. The rules often ensure safety for the workers (for example, minimum number of workers on a call – four people can lift a heavy box more safely than two) and also protect the theater’s equipment (trained workers know how to properly load equipment in, how much weight can hang from the pipes, etc.) I BELIEVE IN THE WIN-WIN. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute once had a policy against hiring union stagehands. When I worked there, I negotiated a deal that would allow me to hire the union. I argued that the stagehands’ skills would enable us to set up more quickly, and would free me from needing to directly supervise the crew. The venue agreed, as long as they didn’t have to sign a contract. It was definitely a win-win: the work product was good, so Munson-Williams didn’t mind paying slightly more for the labor it needed, when it needed it.

On the other hand…

Live theater is in trouble. Old buildings like the Stanley have been forced to renovate – that means loans to pay, and their rental rates have increased. At the same time, audiences have dwindled, partly due to financial pressures on families, also because of competing entertainment options. It’s risky to put on a show. High schools and colleges offer state-of-the-art facilities, cheaper rental prices, and don’t require union stagehands (all of which means less financial risk).

A friend of mine took a chance and presented a show at the Stanley. The union earned their standard rates, by far the biggest line item of the budget. The actors and the creative team worked free, the sound and lighting were rented at a discount, but my friend still lost thousands of dollars (and many patrons complained about the $30 ticket price, which may have kept some away.) Here’s the thing: the union did not add value on that show. (It wasn’t a win-win.) My friend’s production had to meet the union’s minimums, but the skilled labor came with the sound and lighting rentals (unions often allow outsiders to work sound/lighting etc. as long as a union worker is paid for the position.) Again – the union did not improve the show, but they did hurt the promoter significantly.

I know and like many people who are union stagehands, and certainly I risk offending them by expressing some of these observations and opinions. But this is the bottom line: for as friendly and cooperative as many stagehands are, at the end of the day it’s difficult to look at the service provided and square it with the bill. My theatrical consulting rate is $35/hour, but I’m rarely paid on an hourly basis. I provide a “per show” quote and if my hours increase, my rate drops correspondingly. Plus, I pay self-employment tax out of that. (Many unions now use payroll services, which add a 25-30% service fee on top of the bill to cover employer’s taxes, unemployment insurance, etc. Stagehands still pay income taxes and social security, but at a lower rate because they are considered employees.) On some shows I’ve worked, stagehands have cost up to $40/hour apiece, while my effective rate has been under $10. This is not me griping about not getting enough. But the chain of compensation is often upside down – in terms of putting on the show, my position is usually more important than the stagehands; it’s only their contract which ensures their numbers and higher reimbursement rates.

Most employers hire skilled workers for specific jobs. At my day job, I’m paid for specific computer programming skills. The stagehand model is different. A union contract might require a lighting board operator, but the stagehand who fills the position might not even know how to run a lighting board. It would be like my employer filling my programmer position with a burger flipper: no matter how friendly and well-meaning the burger flipper is, his or her skill set would not be appropriate. This situation is not uncommon – on almost any union crew call, I can expect less than half the workers to do most of the skilled work, with the remainder just filling a contractual requirement (and reaping unearned remuneration).

As a lighting designer, one of my biggest peeves is poor followspot operators. Followspots are lights, operated by a person, that follow performers around the stage. It is not uncommon to see followspots open in the wrong place on stage, not cover the entire performer, follow erratically instead of smoothly, etc. Unions often assign the position to new workers because modern followspots don’t require special skills to operate. On one show, the bill for two followspot operators, for one rehearsal and one show, was $600. A 6-hour commitment for each operator, for an effective rate of $50/hour per followspot. That’s steep even if the operators are top-notch, which they almost never are. I’d rather recruit students and pay them $100 each for the day – when I’ve been able to do that for non-union shows, I’ve seen enthusiasm make up for inexperience. (Maybe they want it more?)

So. What should be done to address the problem with stagehands unions? I wrote last year that an enterprising person could probably replace every union stagehand on Broadway for half the cost without noticeable degradation in work quality. Colleges and many high schools often have a technical director on staff, who is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the facility and its equipment. Old theaters like the Stanley might consider the same arrangement. Pay a single person a fair salary and make them responsible. Allow them to hire appropriate staff for each event, as needed. The “as needed” part is crucial.

Once, I needed riggers to hang two points for sound (a point is where the chain component of a chain motor attaches to the structure of the facility – it’s what allows trusses and speakers to fly high above the stage and audience.) The union contract in that theater specified a minimum of three riggers for any rigging job – two “up” and one “down.” (Another union house I’ve worked in would have only required a single “up” rigger, which is far more reasonable for two points.) Riggers are usually not required to do anything else; in this example, the riggers worked about 60 minutes altogether (30 minutes on setup, then 30 more on the carryout) and earned about $250 each. Now, I’ve worked as a rigger myself. Some shows require dozens of points, with complicated spans and irregular baskets – skilled work that requires knowledge and experience. In the 2-point example I used earlier, I could have personally done the uprigging except for the union contract, which prohibited it. Three riggers was overkill.

Another example. The Stanley Theater contract used to require truck loaders, which is no longer in force today. At the Stanley today, stagehands help unload trucks, then work the setup during the same call. Other contracts require separate truck loaders, who don’t do anything but unload and reload trucks. Often, there are minimum numbers of loaders required, each earning a standard minimum number of hours, no matter how small the job.

Every union has overtime and penalty rules, maddening and difficult to decipher. On a recent show, I learned that my entire crew was working at time and a half, even though I’d ensured we didn’t exceed time limits, and I’d provided the requisite coffee breaks (with donuts).

Let’s get back to “what should be done.” The following list is a start. Take from it what you will.

1) Where union contracts exist, the work rules should be clear (they should fit on one side of a piece of paper.) All parties should understand the rules, and be able to easily reference them. Most importantly, the rules should serve the purpose of mutual benefit (win-win).

2) Stagehands unions should do more to accommodate the needs of individual shows. If a bus and truck show comes in a single vehicle, it might be enough for two stagehands to help load them in and be available for any needs. (With some bus and truck shows I’ve seen, one stagehand would be enough.) Contracts should NOT be one-size-fits-all.

3) If unions insist on certain skilled positions being filled by union members, those workers should definitely know their shit. Better yet, if I can run a light board and properly rig two points, leave those two (or three or four) unnecessary workers off the call.

4) Unions should consider working on a per-job basis instead of per-hour. If someone is asked to work a show for $150 they know what they’ll be making and what it will probably entail. Too often, stagehands are the only ones making more money as the clock keeps ticking, while the production team’s rates drop by the minute, and they end up making compromises just to keep the bill down.

5) Or hell, just break the unions. Hire a good in-house technical director and let that person call workers as needed.

Ouch! Break the unions? How could we do that to those nice guys? Think about this. Those nice guys have been coming to the theater for ten, twenty, thirty years and more. Yes, they’re loyal. They’ve also been voting themselves raises for a good portion of that time, and their knowledge hasn’t kept pace with the times. They’ve insisted on bloated payrolls and enforced inscrutable work rules that almost always benefit workers at the expense of the production. They’ve too often considered their positions a right, not a privilege, not as something to be earned or lived up to.

But what if they get angry? What if they strike? They might. It would certainly be awkward and uncomfortable. Feelings would be hurt. But live theater is ALREADY IN CRISIS and unions aren’t helping to solve the problem. When I mentioned on one show that the labor bill was the largest line item and the presenter was losing money, a union member responded “That’s not our problem. They shouldn’t be doing shows here if they can’t sell the tickets.” Which is exactly what’s happening – fewer shows. Which hurts everyone. When I discuss these ideas with union members, they almost always agree. They say, “You’re right – I’ve heard that other union in the next city really takes advantage.” Or, “Those Carnegie Hall stagehands, making a half million per year. Can you believe it? No wonder Broadway tickets are so high.” I’ve NEVER heard any union member say, “I’m probably overpaid for what I bring to the table.” I guess I’ll say it: most of them are. (Still nice people. Still often cheerful and helpful. But overpaid.)

And here’s what I risk by writing this. On one show in the future, I will call for the house lights to go down, and they won’t. I might ask for a drop to fly in fast, and it will come slowly. A 4-hour setup will take 6 hours. THESE THINGS HAVE HAPPENED ALREADY. The reason I quit ITEA Local 1 is because I’d hired three union stagehands for a show, and not only did the workers show up late, but I only got 2 out of 3, and not the people I’d specifically requested. I quit because I was disgusted at the union mindset that put the institution ahead of the show. The mindset that thrives on bullying and favoritism.

The fear of offending unions is real. Promoters bend over backwards to keep THE UNION happy, because they fear what might happen if they don’t. They fear they won’t be able to staff a 60—person touring show if they buck the union. They fear other forms of retribution. I often bite my tongue working with a union crew because I wonder what might happen if I say anything critical – my goal must be the smooth completion of the show. And so I bring them donuts, which I pay for out of my $10/hour, which they eat on their $20-$30-$40/hour. That’s not a win-win.

This is what I’m saying: the current system is broken. It has to change.