Tuesday, September 13, 2016 by Cate Malek

Stagehands at ZACH Theatre ask city to step into wage fight

Although they’re used to being behind the scenes, the stagehands from ZACH Theatre are going public with their requests for more equitable pay.

On Sept. 1, representatives of the stagehands asked City Council to put stipulations on cultural organizations like ZACH Theatre requiring that they pay fair and stable wages. This is the first campaign for a newly forming stagehand’s union at the theater. At the heart of their fight, they say, is Austin’s creative community’s struggle to secure a stable living so it can afford to stay in the rapidly growing city.

“We have a right to try and shape our workforce by standing with our peers,” stagehand Katie Anderson told the Austin Monitor. “And (the theater is) really trying to stamp that out.”

ZACH Theatre, which was founded in 1932, is the longest continuously running theater in Texas and one of the oldest in the country. The theater’s management said it pays stagehands at or above the market wage for comparable theaters.

“We are constantly seeking ways to increase compensation and benefits,” Managing Director Elisbeth Challener wrote in an email to the Monitor. She emphasized that the theater does not discriminate against employees based on gender or other protected categories.

But the stagehands say that their own experience has shown otherwise. Anderson said they are paid $10 to $12 per hour, whereas other theaters are paying $17 per hour. They also said that ZACH doesn’t follow its own policies in terms of providing reasons for termination, and it lets people go without a clear discussion of what they did wrong. As for discrimination, stagehands said when they began to talk among themselves about what they were being paid, they found seemingly arbitrary disparities between men and women doing the same work.

Anderson said one example is from the wardrobe department, which is largely staffed by women and accounts for some of the lowest wages at the theater.

“They get there earlier and stay longer than the rest of us,” Anderson said. “There’s no reason they should make less.”

The stagehands have begun to organize a “union of (their) peers,” Anderson said. It is a union made up only of stagehands working for ZACH Theatre, although they are getting some support and resources from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 205, which serves Austin.

ZACH Theatre’s management said that while it understands that employees have the right to choose to join a union, it would prefer its employees deal directly with management.

“We have always worked effectively with our employees, without them having to pay union dues,” Challener said.

The stagehands believe that the theater has actively discouraged their attempts to organize. The workers were required to attend meetings at which they were told that the union would “suck the creative soul out of ZACH,” Anderson said. She was also told that the union stewards were “mobsters.” She believes that she and other employees have been taken off jobs because of their involvement with the union.

Because they believe that ZACH Theatre is working against their campaign, the stagehands have come before City Council asking the city to place stipulations on its funding for the theater. The city is set to approve $40,000 for the theater in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2016-2017 budget, and ZACH receives a total of $260,000 a year from the city, Anderson said at the budget meeting.

The city does not have specific requirements for the payroll practices of the cultural organizations it funds. But “the cultural contracts that the city enters into with these artists and arts organizations represent a partnership between the city and these contractors, and an investment in their economic prosperity,” Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, the assistant director of the Economic Development Department, wrote in an email to the Monitor. “Under the contract the City can audit the artist or arts organization’s records, including payroll.”

The issue has raised some interest from Council members as well. Council Member Greg Casar told the Monitor, “All workers have a federally protected right to representation. The ZACH Theatre is a public-private partnership and sits on city-owned property. I hope that in the near future we can work with ZACH to ensure that the city’s values of fair working conditions are reflected in their workplace.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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