With union picketing continuing at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, stagehands and scene shop staffers are watching a major labor dispute develop after voting to bring in the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE).
Seeking what IATSE business manager Bob Ingersoll has earlier described as a simple struggle for "money and respect,” some 14 employees organized under IATSE (which is in turn affiliated with the sprawling A.F.L.C.I.O.-CWA) last year. As reported, talks broke down in February, and, on March 4, union workers began picketing the Goodman Theatre. Union workers within this small group are now being paid $10.50-$13.00, and as high as $15.50 per hour in one case. These staffers are said to want $23 per hour. (The union says it as dropped this demand to $22 as of March 16). The Goodman is willing to pay $17 per hour now and up to $19 per hour over the three-year life of the new contract.
Talks over a new contract had been underway for seven months before the strike was called, the union said. The strike itself is now in its third week and talks have stalled as of March 16.
As reported by the union, "The Goodman is registered with the State of Illinois as a charitable, not-for profit organization, yet in 1999 it paid its artistic director over $240,000 and its executive director more than $225,000." The union says that because more recent filings are not available, current salaries are not known. Goodman executive director Roche Schulfer has been with the Goodman for close to three decades and says he could make much more money working in the entertainment business in Hollywood, but that he preferred nonprofit theatre. His salary, and others at the Goodman, are in line with the rest of the nonprofit industry he says. “I have nothing to apologize for,” Schulfer insists. In the Chicago press, IATSE’s Ingersoll said that in terms of union wage demands, its member employees “are worth it,” and “the Goodman can afford it."
On the theatre side, Goodman’s Schulfer told Playbill On-Line that the labor dispute is extremely time consuming. So much so that, in the few weeks since negotiations broke off, labor has come to take up “one hundred percent” of the veteran nonprofit executive’s time. Schulfer’s review of the labor issue at the Goodman tells of how a leading regional nonprofit started off trying to cooperate with veteran staffers seeking unionization, only to find itself at odds with the teamsters union and working with federal mediators during a strike.
“We think it's in part due to the fact that we have a new location,” Schulfer said, referencing Goodman’s two new nonprofit theatres in Chicago’s new North Loop Theatre District. “When our employees approached us and said they'd like to be represented by IATSE, we did not resist that overture. We figured it would be alright. We want to work well with people who work with us and, in this case, it involved about 14 people who were either in our scene shop or on the stage crew.”
At IATSE, Ingersoll admitted that the theatre’s new location is one of several factors that prompted the recent unionization effort. However, it was the employees at Goodman that contacted the union, he said, not the other way around. “There are also wage issues, safety issues and so on,” Ingersoll said. “People don’t go to unions to get help unless there’s something wrong.”
A 27-year veteran of the Goodman who began his career in the theatre’s box office, Schulfer said that most of the employees involved in the current labor dispute have been around for about five years. (Schulfer also said that the Goodman scene shop and its staff are located at a different location from the actual theatres).
“We knew this was coming for a long time but I thought we could be reasonable,” Schulfer said. “They wanted IATSE to bargain on their behalf and we voluntarily agreed.”
Once the door was open to unionization, the Goodman executive recalled, unexpected developments took place. “From the outset,” Schulfer said, “the union made wage and jurisdiction demands that went far beyond those of the original 14 people.” Originally, the Goodman maintains, IATSE also wanted jurisdiction over anyone or anything that involved stage or scenic work, including all part time or special project hires which are used for load in and load out. These employees are sometimes called “overhires.”
“Coupled with that,” Schulfer said, “were their wage demands, which were pegged to the Oriental Palace [2,300 seats] and the Shubert [1,700 seats] which are [commercial] theatres with at least twice our capacity, which is 856 seats."
At IATSE, Ingersoll said that the original union demand to represent the overhires was withdrawn, although the union typically represents such work at other venues. As for the comparison with the Oriental and Shubert, Ingersoll said that the union had, in fact, taken into consideration that the Goodman is a smaller house and has not asked for rates comparable to these commercial theatres.
As of March 19, a Goodman spokesperson maintained that the union was demanding a 91.3 percent wage increase over 40 months and has insisted “that the contract apply to temporary personnel and all activities in the Goodman Theatre both on stage and off stage.”
“Their wage rates were based on locations,” Schulfer explained. “As Ingersoll said, ‘If they’re in the North Loop, they should pay North Loop rates.’ We said, ‘North Loop rates are based on very big operations, or for venues like the Lyric Opera which works nine months of the year and has 3,500 seats. Their budget is $45 million and their top tickets are selling for $139; versus our 856 seats, a $12 million budget and a top ticket price of $45.’ That $45 ticket price is for singles, by the way, and our subscription price is much lower. You look around and the top price for The Producers [for instance] was $73, and we said to the union, ‘You are comparing apples and oranges.’”
Asked to respond, Ingersoll told Playbill On-Line that he had more accurately said, “If they move into a new, $46 million theatre in the middle of the Loop, then they’re with the Big Boys now. They should have taken into consideration that costs were going to go up when they moved there.”
The Goodman maintains that its existing wages and wage proposals are fair and in line with similar venues--maybe better. Schulfer said, “We pay more than Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare [comparable Chicago area non-union, nonprofit theatres] and what we’re willing to pay is far more.”
Does Schulfer regret bringing the union in, and would he do things differently given the chance?
“At this point, how can I answer that question?” Schulfer said. “I think it was the right thing to do at that time. The people we were negotiating with were people who have worked here and we were confident that we would be able to strike a deal for an initial contract with those original 14 employees. Now, Schulfer says, rather than being able to offer increases and security to long term, full time employees, he is facing a situation where he might have to offer the same rates to everybody—whether they are part of the original 14 or simply part time employees. “There are serious implications,” Schulfer said. “We’re talking about an additional $2 million to our annual budget.”
That may be difficult for the Goodman to achieve, Schulfer explains. “We’re not able to charge $100 a ticket, nor are we producing plays that are a commercial success. Yeah, people know all about Death of a Salesman, but there are seven or eight other plays that we do each season that no one hears about.”
IATSE takes issue with Schulfer’s estimated ticket price. “Anyone can manipulate numbers to prove their side of a story,” Ingersoll said. “If they raised their ticket prices just $5 they could raise almost $1 million per year. So, we don’t need to hear about these exaggerated figures of ‘$100 a ticket.’”
The Goodman says there was no real movement throughout the course of the first seven months of talks. During that time, the meetings tended to feature what Schulfer described as a “repackaging of union demands,” which if anything, he said, “became more onerous as talks went on.”
For the union’s part, Ingersoll points out that construction schedules precluded Schulfer’s attendance at labor negotiations between March 2000 and March 13, 2001 when federal mediators finally came in. “I’m sure they were keeping him posted , but he was never actually at the table,” Ingersoll said.
“At the time of the break off [mid-February, pre-strike],” Schulfer said, “the union was looking for a 111 percent increase. We said 34 percent in the first few years and we expressed a willingness to go beyond.”
That willingness, Schulfer clarified, involved the original 14 people who sought unionization. He said that for economic reasons there were concerns in his camp over offering similar increases to part time employees, specifically those who load in and load out, and others who comprise Goodman’s daily, weekly and monthly hires.
Ingersoll said that the Goodman has filed unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on the overhires issue. In any case, IATSE said it had dropped its demands to cover load in and load out employees prior to those charges being filed. The NLRB complaints remain open, Ingersoll said.
Schulfer said he often has to point out that “federal mediation is not arbitration.” Indeed, federal mediators do not guarantee any sort of resolution to a labor dispute. “I have no idea whether the talks are going anywhere or not,” Schulfer said. “I hope they are. We’ve seen progress on some issues but we’re miles apart on others.”
Schulfer maintained that the Goodman has tabled proposed increases of as much as 60 percent.
Countering claims that the Goodman’s creative reputation and new facility imply a level of prosperity that calls for commensurate increases in staff wages, Schulfer emphasizes the nature of the theatre company. “We’re a producing company doing eight or nine shows a year,” Schulfer said. “Some are successful and some are not. We’re not a commercial operation, which means we might have a string of flops but we’re not going to be out of business. We’re here to say, and that means we can provide employment to a lot of people.”
A career nonprofit executive, Schulfer has certain experience in labor negotiations but says this is the first time he has experienced a break down in talks or a major labor dispute at the Goodman. He cites Actors’ Equity and the League of Resident Theatres which have found ways to compromise by charging lower minimums and “guaranteeing work weeks.” The Goodman, Schulfer added, does not pay “star salaries.”
The labor situation has been surprising, Schulfer said, especially in terms of what he described as the union’s “intensity of response.”
“They would bring in people from other unions and disrupt the theatre, and the employees reported a feeling of intimidation,” Schulfer said. “I respect the rights of unions to organize—this is America—and I’m not anti union and the Goodman isn’t. But what was upsetting is that some of the tactics were very, very strong...meaning fear tactics or scare tactics.”
In the initial days of the strike, Schulfer recalled that there was “very intense verbal harassment of staff coming into the theatre.”
“One day,” the Goodman exec said, “members of another union were brought in to demonstrate in front of the theatre and they blocked the entrance. The police had to be called in.”
Asked if he could identify which “members of another union” were brought in at the Goodman, Schulfer said that Chicago’s police had told him, “It was the teamsters.” That same group allegedly surrounded a garbage truck as it was starting to pick up a dumpster and then “verbally attacked the driver, who indicated he felt quite threatened and left.”
Ingersoll recalled that day, and explained that “the Chicago Federation of Labor was having an organizing conference nearby and they came over for an hour to show some support. They started shouting ‘We want a contract! When do we want it? Now!’ So, if that constitutes verbal abuse, I suppose that’s true. At the Goodman, they sometimes like to complain,” Ingersoll said.
“That kind of stuff, I just don’t think it's right,” Schulfer said. “This is a nonprofit theatre company. We’re not your most virulent anti-union corporation, and we’re not unwilling to deal with organized labor.”
Goodman’s willingness notwithstanding, the theatre company is feeling the union pinch. “All I can say,” Schulfer said, “is we can’t find people who will come here to work, union or not. We can’t find people who are willing to cross the picket line.”
The theatre’s plans to stage James Baldwin’s Amen Corner had not been interrupted as of March 16.
On March 19, Ingersoll told Playbill On-Line that on March 16 the Goodman rejected the union’s most recent proposal and had walked away from federally mediated negotiations.
Following the break in talks on March 16, the Goodman released its own statement intended to explain the issues, and what IATSE’s Ingersoll believes could be an extended labor dispute. Saying that IATSE’s Local 2 “struck the Goodman Theatre on March 4 after the union abruptly ended negotiations with the Goodman,” the theatre claimed that the strike “is not [Goodman’s emphasis] disrupting the operations of the Goodman Theatre.”
The Goodman statement summarized many of its positions and claimed:
• IATSE demanded a 91.3 percent wage hike over 40 months.
• The union still wants overhires and other temporary personnel covered by the contract.
• IATSE’s demands for the Goodman were linked to union contracts with commercial theaters.
• The Goodman provides more than 7,000 free tickets to high school students.
• The Goodman’s most recent offer to the union provided its full-time, year round scene shop and stage crew with a 49.4 percent wage increase over 40 months. The Goodman has also offered a continuation of their benefit package which includes employer-paid health insurance, annual employer contribution to a 401K plan (six percent this past year), up to four weeks paid vacation, and five paid sick days each year.
• Goodman’s compensation packages are comparable to the next largest not-for-profit theaters in Chicago, the Steppenwolf Theatre ($9.9 million budget) and Chicago Shakespeare Company ($8 million budget). They are also reasonable and fair in relation to the compensation paid to the Goodman’s 100 other full-time employees.
• The Goodman Theatre has maintained contracts and good relations with four theatrical unions over the past 25 years.
• The Goodman believes that the stagehand union’s demands have disastrous implications for not-for-profit theaters in Chicago and around the country.