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Union talk makes arts funding approval rancorous

Friday, October 7, 2016 by Jo Clifton

After more than two hours of often angry and conflicting testimony about the state of labor relations at the ZACH Theatre, City Council on Thursday approved the cultural arts services contract for the upcoming year with a number of controversial amendments that were reworked during the day.

The agreement covers eight nonprofit organizations – ZACH, Ballet Austin, the Austin Film Society, the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Austin Opera, the Long Center for the Performing Arts, Tapestry Dance Company and Austin Classical Guitar – for a total of $1,598,200. The programs are funded through the Hotel Occupancy Tax.

The vote was 8-1-1, with Council Member Don Zimmerman opposed, Council Member Ora Houston abstaining and Council Member Ellen Troxclair on family leave.

Council members Greg Casar and Ann Kitchen sponsored the pro-labor amendments, which may directly impact ZACH’s relationships with its employees, but not in the upcoming year.

Under the contract approved Thursday, the arts organizations will have to agree to work with the city “to develop labor standards and criteria to use for evaluation of eligibility for the next funding cycle. Council shall consider in February 2017 how much weight, if any, to give contractors’ conduct thereafter,” as relates to union activities. Various representatives of ZACH’s management expressed anger that they were not consulted about the changes until recently.

The contract includes amendments that require any contractor who does not have an agreement with a union or is not in the process of negotiating such an agreement to “make best efforts to negotiate in good faith an agreement … with any requesting labor organization” to enter into a labor peace agreement. In addition, the contractor is required to “maintain a neutral posture” with respect to attempts by a union to entice its employees to join.

Perhaps the most controversial amendment states that the contractor must recognize the union as its “employees’ bargaining representative if the majority of such employees designate the labor organization as their bargaining representative using the card-check method of designation or other system that the labor organization and contractor agree results in a similarly fair result.”

The card check is a method in which employees sign authorization cards indicating that they wish to be represented by a specific union. The cards are sent to the National Labor Relations Board, and if the board determines that 50 percent of the employees wish to join the union, the union will be recognized as representing that group. However, it is not a secret ballot, and employees can be coerced into signing or not signing such cards.

Stagehand Katie Anderson was the only current ZACH Theatre employee to speak in favor of the amendments. She said her fellow stagehands have been intimidated and fear retaliation. Anderson told Council that her hours have been cut and her crew was ordered to follow a certain dress code, thus eliminating her ability to wear a union T-shirt at work.

She stood in front of Council putting cards into a box, which she said are cards indicating her fellow employees who wanted to join the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local chapter is known as IATSE 205.

“There’s a reason why union organizing is done in secrecy,” she said, adding that employees were forced to go to mandatory meetings during which they were told that unionization would bankrupt the theater.

Paul Flint, Anderson’s boss, said the meetings were called because employees had been asking questions and felt pressure from the union. He said, “Katie has been offered work,” some of which she refused.

Anderson sat with a contingent of union supporters on one side of Council chambers, while employees voicing opposition to the union sat on the other side of the room alongside management.

Brandy Harris, assistant costume shop manager at ZACH, told Council that she had worked in theaters across the country as a member of the union. “I did not enjoy my experience,” she said. When she came to Austin, she decided not to continue her participation.

Zimmerman argued against the card-check system, saying that the union should use a secret ballot. Zimmerman and Council Member Sheri Gallo attempted to get their colleagues to agree to remove the wording referring to that method, but they failed.

Gallo said it seemed to her that they were trying to have a labor discussion “and we’re embedding the discussion in the cultural arts contracts.”

Tom Terkel, a member of ZACH’s board of trustees, told the Austin Monitor after the vote, “The anger you heard today coming from the whole ZACH family was all about being excluded from any kind of a stakeholder process to discuss the merits of these kinds of labor-favoring agreements in a nonprofit, arts-organization environment. All we ever wanted was a voice and a seat at the table before we were sent off to negotiate with the union.

“I have to say that Council members Casar and Kitchen did try to accommodate us within the context of making a policy statement that arts organizations and nonprofits are no different than Dell or Google or any other for-profit company,” he continued. “We don’t agree with that. We think there are very fundamental differences.”

In a press release after the vote, Casar said, “Workers have a federally protected right to decide if they want union representation without fear of retaliation. This Council has previously initiated worker protections in other contracts because ensuring labor-management cooperation on city property is a value for our City Council.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore made available through a Creative Commons license.

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