Peasant Wages for Lordly Feats

Medieval Times performers strike against dismal pay and hazardous conditions.

Emily Janakiram

An illustration of a knight holding an "Unfair Labor Practice Strike" sign while on horseback. Photo courtesy of Medieval Times Performers United

Outside the Medieval Times castle in Buena Park, Calif., a sudden Monty Python-like spectacle emerges — twoscore knights, queens, squires and trumpeters, all marching on the boss to demand a fair contract. The protest is part of an indefinite unfair labor practice strike that comes after three months of stalled negotiations between newly unionized workers and Medieval Times management. 

In 2022, workers at two of Medieval Times’ ten castles unionized, claiming that the medieval-themed dinner theater was paying them peasant wages to enact lordly feats of strength — jousting on horseback, with real weapons. I absolutely love my job, and the people that I work with,” says Jake Bowman, a knight speaking from the picket line in California. But Bowman makes just $18.50 an hour in one of the highest cost-of-living regions in the country, a wage he says is almost impossible to live on. One of our knights is sleeping in his car right now,” Bowman adds. According to a post by @MTUnitedNJ on Twitter, stable hands — who take care of the horses essential to the show — make so little that they qualify for food stamps. The union demands wages be increased to the hourly living wage minimum for Orange County, which is currently estimated to be $23.66.

According to Monica Garza, who works as a queen at the unionized Medieval Times castle in Lyndhurst, N.J., as well as Erin Zapcic, a queen and union steward in Buena Park, in bargaining sessions, the company told workers at each castle that it does have money — it just chooses not to spend it on workers. Medieval Times management did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.

Knights are sleeping in their cars, while stable hands make so little they qualify for food stamps.

Instead, the largesse of the kingdom is being doled out to those who bend the knee. The five workers interviewed for this article confirmed that in January, nonunion castles received 20% to 25% raises while union castles were offered 2% to 3% in negotiations, which worked out to mere cents per hour. Multiple workers called this figure a slap in the face.” Further, they say, some job roles are being undervalued. Trumpeters were initially not offered raises at all, according to Jessica Gibson, a trumpeter with the New Jersey location. In their mind, we play a few calls [to announce ceremonies],” Gibson says. We do so much more — we’re backstage helping the queens set up, doing radio communications — but they don’t see that.” 

In addition to low pay, workers who spoke with In These Times all named serious safety concerns as one of their top grievances. You’re working with live animals in a live show, where real weapons are swung at you,” Bowman says. Jonathan Beckas, a knight at the Medieval Times castle in New Jersey who goes by J.C., recounted a recent incident when he was tossed from a horse because management scheduled extremely noisy construction during rehearsals — a nail gun went off and startled the horse. J.C. says he only avoided injury due to luck.

Workers say management’s training methods also expose them to risk of injury. Sean Quigley, a former lord marshal” at the Lyndhurst castle (he left in January), says his Medieval Times instructor allowed a horse to throw him off during his knight training in 2017. Quigley, who says he was provided no helmet or protective gear, landed fully on his back and bruised his spine. Since then, workers say, the only improvements to the safety measures is that female performers, such as queens, now wear helmets when they ride a horse — if there are enough helmets. This training practice has been discontinued. There are very obvious safety measures that are overlooked,” says Garza. 

The largesse of the kingdom is being doled out to those who bend the knee, with nonunion castles receiving 20% to 25% raises in contrast to the 2% to 3% being offered to unionized workers.

Chronic understaffing further increases the safety risks, workers say. We never have enough people,” Bowman says. All the workers In These Times spoke to say understaffing leads actors to perform the strenuous jousting act several times back-to-back, which heightens the risk of injury. According to Garza, there was little security and event staff in early 2022, leaving workers on stage open to harassment. She recounts being physically accosted on stage by a drunk audience member, whom she had to fight off herself. 

Workers say understaffing burdens existing staff with extra responsibilities. For instance, Garza says two trumpeters at the Lyndhurst castle were asked to operate the spotlight right as a show was about to start. The specialized task was not part of trumpeters’ job descriptions, but when trumpeters refused to perform it, Garza says they were fired. (On February 27, Medieval Times posted a job listing for a spotlight operator at their Lyndhurst location, proclaiming in all-caps: FOR A LIMITED TIME, WE ARE OFFERING A $250 SIGN-ON BONUS AFTER 60 DAYS OF EMPLOYMENT!”)

The union has raised these issues in bargaining, but workers say the company and its lawyers have been dismissive, reportedly telling workers, you’re not Hollywood, you’re not Broadway” and anyone can do your job.” After four bargaining sessions, Buena Park workers say management still refused to negotiate on wages or staffing minimums. 

"We were aware that there were scabs ready to replace us in case we went on strike like California," says Garza.

The last straw precipitating the Buena Park strike was litigation against the union. The company is suing Medieval Times Performers United and the American Guild of Variety Artists for trademark infringement for using the Medieval Times company name and logo in union branding — a strategy not even notorious union-busters like Amazon and Trader Joe’s have tried. They were trying to send a message that, if you organize, you can expect a day in court. It was clearly retaliation and intimidation,” says Zapcic. According to Zapcic and Bowman, Medieval Times has also reported the union’s social media accounts for trademark infringement, in the process getting the union’s TikTok account banned, which — at 8,200 followers — had been a key organizing tool. 

Strikers claim aggressive litigation isn’t the only strike-breaking tactic the company is resorting to. Within a week of the strike beginning, the company had called upon its cavalry: Not-so-parfait-gentil knights from other locations to work as scabs in the Buena Park castle.

We were aware that there were scabs ready to replace us in case we went on strike like California,” says Garza.

Bowman, the knight from California, said the company was also doing a nice PR campaign against us on the inside.”

But the union has its own cavalry coming in: We are part of AFL-CIO and a network of people who will drop everything and come out to support you,” Zapcic says. We had some of the girls from Star Garden [Topless Dive Bar] out picketing with us. … Starbucks [Workers] United has been out picketing with us, and we get more people to join the line every day — we’re turning it into a big party … Over the last week, I’ve had a new appreciation for what being in a union means.” 

Courage did not wane in the hearts of the thousands of peasants who, armed with old bows, sticks and axes, revolted across England in the wake of the Black Death, demanding an end to serfdom. Nor does it wane now in the hearts of Medieval Times Performers United. With the force of the labor movement behind them, the workers are confident that, unlike the peasants of 14th-century England, their quest will not be in vain.

[Note to readers: After consultation with sources originally quoted in this story, the piece has been modified to clarify the context and substance of several anecdotes and quotations in order to ensure accuracy.]

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