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Council issues stern warning to ZACH Theatre

Thursday, October 5, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Is management at ZACH Theatre interfering with employee efforts to unionize? The answer could cost them $272,500 from the city.

The money in question is part of the city’s annual cultural arts contracts. Though more than $8.4 million in contracts passed without discussion, City Council pulled the ZACH Theatre funding, which includes a separate $60,000 for maintenance, for further scrutiny at its Sept. 28 meeting. Council Member Delia Garza explained that she had heard the theater’s management may be preventing union activity, despite a clear directive to establish “labor neutrality” in contracts last year to ensure that workers felt safe unionizing at the theater.

Rachel Magee is the president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 205, the union that has represented stagehands in Austin since 1911. She told Council that following last year’s discussion, union organizer Katie Anderson saw her hours cut, which Magee argued had an impact on nascent organizing efforts.

“The fear caused by the extreme reduction of Katie’s hours undermined any confidence gained by achieving labor neutrality,” said Magee.

After the Council discussion last year, she said, ZACH’s management agreed to start meeting with the union, but didn’t explain why Anderson’s hours had been cut. She said that management also established a solicitation policy for posting on call boards, preventing the posting of organizing notices. As a consequence, in April, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the theater. In July, the labor board issued a complaint, and a hearing on the case is scheduled for December.

As a result, Council members voted 8-1-1 to award the contract with the unusual stipulation that if the theater is found to have violated labor laws, as is alleged, the money will be returned to the city. Council Member Alison Alter abstained from the vote, Council Member Ellen Troxclair was absent and Mayor Steve Adler voted against the motion.

“I’m uncomfortable voting for that because I just don’t know enough,” said Adler. He explained that, without a ruling, he didn’t know how to value a violation monetarily and argued that should be left to the city manager to determine. He stressed that he felt it was important that there was a sanction if the management was found in violation, but he thought the amount of that sanction should have been made clear prior to awarding last year’s contract.

“I think the principle here is not a damages principle per se,” countered Council Member Ann Kitchen. “We’re going to make grants to organizations that meet the values of this community as expressed by this Council. And the value we were expressing was compliance with labor laws. That’s why I think this is appropriate.”

Garza, who pulled the item for discussion, stressed her preference “to send a clear message that if there is any violation found, regardless of the degree, that there are strong consequences for that.”

“This is not the first time this has come to us. This was a situation that the labor union brought to us, and there was plenty of time to correct it and now we’re here,” said Garza. “I think we should send a strong message about how we use our funds and that we support working families and organizing.”

Elisabeth Challener, who is the managing director at ZACH Theatre, told the Austin Monitor via email, “We believe that it was inappropriate to consider this issue without input from ZACH Theatre. After 85 years in Austin, ZACH deserved to be consulted about something of this magnitude.

“ZACH is a non-profit organization and thus all of our funding is critical to the theatre’s ability to serve the Austin community, including the more than 55,000 children who benefit from the theatre and its programming each year,” she wrote. “Zach has not, and will not, breach its agreement with the city. We believe that this issue will be resolved shortly and expect to receive our contract award as previously agreed upon and without the withholding of any funding.”

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the money from the city includes $60,000 for theater maintenance in addition to the $212,000 grant.

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

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