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Working In These Times

Friday, Jan 2, 2015, 4:43 pm

Atlanta Stagehands Fight ‘Labor Pimps’ Pushing Temp Work, Low Wages

BY Bruce Vail

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Concert venues have undercut workers' pay and working conditions in recent years, according to the stagehands' union. (Benjamin Stone / Flickr)  

When singers like Beyoncé take the stage, thousands of eyes are glued to her and her alone. But behind the singer at every concert is an army of workers handling everything from lighting to exploding confetti cannons. And while those performances net entertainers and concert venues massive amounts of money, the backstage workers like the ones who made Beyoncé’s live performance July 15 in Atlanta possible can’t say the same. Those employees are now attempting to organize a union, hoping to reverse the trend of eroded wages and benefits for the stagehands and others who make these performances so profitable.

Anger over the mistreatment of entertainment workers in the Atlanta area has been brewing for years, according to Daniel Di Tolla, an organizer with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Entertainment companies have embraced the use of temporary labor contractors for hiring stagehands, electricians, audio technicians, and riggers for the short-term jobs at their concerts, often seeking out the lowest-cost anti-union contractors available.

Some angered workers call these contractors “labor pimps,” Di Tolla says, because they hoard the profits from the lucrative concerts while many employees are paid wages that are sometimes half that of a unionized stagehand crew. The workers are now engaged in a fight to unionize what workers say is one of the prime offenders of this business model, a company called Crew One Productions.

Billing itself as “the largest tech staffing source in the Southeast,” Crew One has grown into a major force in the music industry in the region and is undermining IATSE’s traditional membership base, Di Tolla says. The union has a longstanding presence in Atlanta—IATSE Local 927 currently represents stage workers at the Atlanta Civic Center, the Fox Theater and elsewhere—but non-union staffing agencies have come to dominate the pop music concerts sector in Atlanta.

Owing to the temporary nature of stage work, unionized IATSE members regularly cross over into non-union work for Crew One; such workers “are amazed by the difference” in compensation, he says. Whereas a stagehand under a union contract can expect $21 to $24 an hour plus benefits for a big performance, Crew One pays as little as $10 with no benefits at all. (Crew One did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

IATSE launched an organizing drive at Crew One last year, collecting authorization cards for a union election to be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), according to Di Tolla. The company adopted a legal strategy to defeat the union, first insisting that the workers were independent contractors and therefore ineligible to form a union. But the IATSE prevailed in the NLRB argument over independent contractor status. An election was finally ordered in April 2014; after delays from additional legal challenges by Crew One, when the results were certified this fall, the union was overwhelmingly voted in, with 116 workers voting in favor of the union while only 60 opposed.

NLRB elections are difficult for any union, but Crew One presented some special problems for IATSE. “This is freelance work in some respects, and the turnover is almost constant, so you really don’t know who is working there from one week to the next,” Di Tolla explains. “They like it that way because it discourages unionization." Crew One and IATSE agreed to a list of eligible voters that totaled 407, but “I doubt half of them will ever work for Crew One again,” he says. The 176 employees who voted in the election actually represent a high percentage of the company’s workforce, and the final tally was an especially good result for the union, according to Di Tolla.

As in many union organizing drives, the issues are about far more than wages. “It was atrocious they way I was treated,” says Chris Stewart, a former Crew One employee who is active in the organizing campaign. Stewart says he has worked for numerous other staffing companies over the last six years, but “nobody treats you like Crew One does.”

According to the union, erratic scheduling, favoritism in job assignments and lax safety practices are common complaints among the workers. Stewart says Crew One also subjects it employees to petty indignities such as failing to provide drinking water for the stagehands and enforcing rules that the workers must not speak to the performers.

Jamie Malloy, a Crew One rigger and union activist, says that he is concerned about safety and “the degradation of my trade.” An entertainment rigger is a “dangerous job,” he says, and the company often does not provide the needed safety equipment.  

Di Tolla fears the fight with Crew One may stretch out far into the future, despite the workers’ election victory. Since the NLRB certified the election results, the company is refusing to bargain a first contract. Union lawyers were informed by Crew One that the company wanted to exercise its legal right to appeal the NLRB decision on independent contractor status to a federal appeals court.

“Something like that typically takes 12 to 18 months to work itself out. The whole process is geared to making the workers jump through hoops to get union representation,” Di Tolla says.

While the company appeals to the NLRB, the union plans to ramp up a public campaign on alleged labor abuses in Atlanta’s concert business, attempting to reverse the eroding work standards for stagehands throughout the country.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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