Business Forum: Union stagehands circumvented for First Night
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Pittsburgh's unionized stagehands don't work outdoor event venues at First Night, the city's big New Year's Eve party. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust hires other workers to man those stages.
The story gets stranger.
The trust has employees who do that very work. On payroll. Members of Local 3 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
They build scenery for "A Christmas Carol" and make sure U2 sounds cool in a football stadium with everyone safe under state-of-the-art equipment perched precipitously above. They run sound and lights for the Pittsburgh Symphony and seamlessly work together to unload semis with half-ton show equipment in the dark of night. You can't get any more talent and working class than a seasoned stagehand.
J. Kevin McMahon, president of the cultural trust, said of the stagehands, "Obviously, we respect them. They're skilled members of the trust family." ("Union Wants To Work First Night Activities," Dec. 17)
But they're circumvented for other labor. They should be working First Night, the Three Rivers Arts Festival (also Trust-managed), the Regatta, the Dollar Bank Jamboree.
The trust has told IATSE it assumed these events at the city's request.
Did the mayor's office mandate the use of nonunion stagehands? Councilman Bill Peduto has been especially helpful to IATSE's concerns; Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has yet to answer queries.
Shawn Foyle, IATSE secretary, says a discounted "festival rate" was proposed but the trust replied: "The union has the theaters and don't get to work these events. It's a business decision."
IATSE Business Agent Bob Brown says it's to "utilize independent contractors to avoid paying prevailing industry standards."
This shell game is known to stagehands who have worked for club concert promoters. But this is the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the do-no-wrong cultural advocate.
"Nothing is stopping the trust from hiring within IATSE," says Mr. Brown. Instead it goes go with a subcontractor, Flyspace Productions, who helps them duck and dodge labor concerns.
Flyspace was paid $146,000 (before event expansion) to provide workers.
Mr. McMahon said total compensation for nonunion stagehands will be about $20.50 per hour.
Remember that "festival rate" IATSE was willing to negotiate? Below $20.50 an hour. Senior IATSE hands make less than $24 an hour; most make $22.50 (The Byham rate at times is $17 an hour.)
So are we to believe the trust hires nonprofessionals at rates comparable or higher than the unionized stagehands' rates?
According to Mr. Brown, the money is less a concern for the trust than the matter of union jurisdiction. After all, how dare the unionized stagehands think they're the ones with expertise to man regional stages?
Apparently Mr. McMahon is worried about the long-term financial effects of changing that arrangement.
The trust receives tax dollars through the state's Department of Community and Economic Development, Regional Asset District revenue and whose senior executive's salary is $575,000 before benefits.
IATSE offered to bring the nonunion workers into the fold, much like the formerly nonunion stagehands at the old Station Square Amphitheater. IATSE has embraced anyone interested in stage work and the experienced worker unwise to his right to a living wage, the brotherhood of professionals, job security, and pension, life, medical and disability benefits.
Mr. Brown recently addressed unionized stagehands before a meeting at City Council, where he told them: "I know you guys are tired of hearing about stage work in Pittsburgh that's not available to you. I know you know what's going on. Its obvious to us. ... We see Pittsburgh tax-funded event stages not staffed by us, and venues going up across the river without our labor, too." (Stage AE on the North Shore also should be hiring IATSE members. Mr. Foyle expresses.)
If First Night outdoor event stages are supported by tax money, acclaimed as family-friendly and good for the economy, then it should be legislated that they are employing Pittsburgh's long-standing, working-class professional union stagehands.
Mr. Brown ran the numbers. The cash outlay from the trust, if it hired IATSE stagehands, would be about $22,000. "An insignificant amount," to a company that "retains 87 million in unrestricted assets," he said.
But to the stagehands and their families, it couldn't be more significant.
IATSE stagehands and their families will protest with handbills Downtown on New Year's Eve. Their call to "Occupy Stages" is just beginning, an opening act, as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust continues to take tax dollars but circumvents the working class.
First Published December 29, 2011 12:00 am