Union stagehands staged a performance at Merrill Auditorium on Thursday to pressure the city of Portland to renegotiate a union-exclusive labor agreement for the venue.
Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 114 handed out flyers to members of the public as they made their way into the auditorium to watch a performance by comedian Chelsea Handler. About 75 to 100 union members attended.
The performance used non-union stagehands from Maine’s production services, despite a decades-long understanding that Local 114 is the exclusive labor provider for the venue, union business manager Doug Born said.
“We’ve been the de facto sole provider of stage labor since Merrill Auditorium reopened in 1997, primarily because we were the only game in town,” Born said. “What we’re hoping to accomplish is restore what we had, which was an agreement with the city to be the exclusive stage work at the auditorium.”
The city and union had a written exclusivity agreement for more than 10 years, with the most recent contract signed in 2018 and expiring in the summer of 2020. Promoters of events such as Portland Ovations hire and pay members union for stage work.
Handler’s performance on Thursday, organized by California-based event promoter LiveNation, is the first show to use stagehands from outside the union, the city said.
Born said Portland officials declined to discuss renewing the labor agreement, citing staff furloughs and other disruptions to city operations that occurred in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. . The union has repeatedly asked to renegotiate its deal or extend it to give the city time to regroup, he said.
Instead, Portland plans to issue a request for proposals for stage work at Merrill. He said the union could submit a bid for the job.
“They kept pushing us back, we got a lot of reassurances that everything was fine, and we just heard about the (plan to issue an RFP) last week,” Born said.
Portland intends to send out its request for proposals early next year, said the city’s director of communications, Jessica Grondin. Former city manager Jon Jennings and city staff decided to put the job up for competition ‘following the pandemic and some issues regarding failure to honor a labor call for representation recent,” said Grondin.
The city discussed the collective agreement and the plan to launch a request for proposals several months ago, Grondin said. That decision was communicated to the president of the union, she added, and city staff discussed an interim agreement to manage upcoming performances until the application process could be completed.
“(The union) is, however, the labor contractor hired by many promoters for all upcoming holiday shows after the one tonight,” Grondin said.
Born said the union was unable to fill eight of 45 stagehand positions hired for a production of the musical “Rent” in late October. As a promoter, Portland Ovations had to pay a penalty for lack of manpower, Born said.
Using the “rent” example as an excuse to allow non-union work in Merrill is “dishonest” about the city, Born said. His union is struggling with the same difficult labor market that the whole country is facing.
“In case anyone didn’t alert ‘Rent’, there’s a gigantic labor shortage everywhere – what’s happening at ‘Rent’ is happening in every industry,” Born said. “We don’t buy the ‘rent’ stuff – we’re pretty sure the decision to go in the direction they’ve taken predates that.”
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