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IATSE and Stagehands Unions: A Complicated Relationship With Our Industry

[Update: the original form of this essay lumped all of IATSE into “stagehands unions”, when in fact there are many local chapters of IATSE that do not function as stagehands for touring concert productions, such as Local 728 in Hollywood that works on film and television lighting. I was under the misconception that IATSE was only stagehands, and that is incorrect. So, when I speak of the IA in this post, I mean only IATSE stagehands unions, and ones that work in arenas and theaters that cater to touring musical productions.]

By even posting this, I’m signing myself up for hate mail. What I hope happens is that someone engages me on the issues and on my specific gripes, instead of just calling me names. On to the masochism! Just so it’s said – again – these blog posts represent my personal views, and not the views of anybody I work for, or have worked for, or will work for, or pass in the middle of the cereal aisle in the Piggly Wiggly.

I have a fraught relationship of ideals when it comes to labor unions, but never more so than when we’re talking about the ones that I regularly come into contact with, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stagehands and Employees (IATSE, or IA for short), and to a much lesser extent, the IBEW. (I’m looking at you, Local 134.) This post, however, is mostly directed at the IA. One other caveat: of course, this is directed at the stagehands unions that I’ve had contact with: mostly arenas and sheds, mostly in North America.

Before going further, another note: I have never been a member of the IA, nor do I think that joining would do anything for the sector of the production world business that I inhabit. I feel the need to stress, however, that I am not anti-union. In fact, I’m quite prounion. I think collective bargaining is a necessary check on the power of massive corporations, and a check on the power of employers with outsized influence, and a check on the insidious poison of unrestrained capitalism. In an ideal system, the power of employers and unions would find a balance as both sides work toward reasonable goals. In an even more ideal system, the government would use its power to regulate commerce (and to regulate workplace safety, conditions, and wages) for good, so that labor unions like the IA would be largely obsolete. Since they won’t, at least for now, I remain pro-union generally. I have some serious concerns about the IA, however, and there is no way by which I might affect the changes I want to see, so I write this in the hopes that someone sees it and knows that at least one designer hates working with them at least some of the time, and realize that things need to change.

I respect and admire many union stagehands. In venues like The Garden, with Local One, I’ve had only good experiences with experienced stagehands who are professional and polite. The good experiences like this one, however, tend to dry up when one gets away from the bigger cities and labor markets. There are bad days to be had both from inexperience and lack of skill, and in some markets, being forced to work with a power-crazed gaggle of entitled, petulant, petty tyrants. A union like IATSE needs to accomplish a few things – in the sense of our current climate of labor relations – if it’s going to add value to a production, and if the union’s power allows it to provide virtually no value to a production while retaining its own power, the relationship becomes exploitative and abusive.

  • A union needs to provide a skilled workforce

Work around the stage is skilled work, and it takes experience to know what you’re doing. Few of the jobs the average stagehand is expected to do are particularly technical in nature; it’s a lot of listening carefully to directions (and directions about direction!) and having basic spatial and language parsing skills. This holds true for most touring productions; the situation on say, Broadway might be very different, but I can only speak to modern touring concert productions where the majority of the lighting rig is pre-rigged, and most of the rig assembly is matching colors or numbers on looms. And here we find out first common problem, because in my experience the general workforce of many local chapters of the IA are undertrained and under-qualified for the jobs that they are doing. For instance, I am often paid to be a lighting designer. I’m paid specifically because I have lighting designer skills, and do lighting designer-ing well enough that people hire me to come back. The IA, however, selects from a pool of workers who will be fulfilling what role each day. Some chapters of the IA are better about this than others, with stewards who are knowledgable about the skills of their crew and who assign them appropriately. But this is not the way all of them operate. On many union crew calls, I expect that there are one or two who are really good and know what they’re doing, the rest are just fulfilling a contractual requirement that the union provide them to the production, and are good only for pushing cases or being shown exactly what to do and how to do it. I’m not talking about not knowing what “LERR” on an old Martin light means. The problems that frustrate me are basic things, like not putting trusses together backward, knowing basic DMX signal theory, knowing to unlock pan and tilts on moving lights, or making sure that floor lights are put out in a straight and orderly fashion, instead of having to be told to clean up the messy row they just made.

Not doing these things isn’t what people are paying for when they hire a union. I expect that on most House of Worship shows I will need to be extremely accommodating and show the volunteer workforce exactly how I want everything put together and how to do tasks that are extremely simple. This isn’t what unions purport to do – the claim, the raison d’etre, is to have a pool of skilled stagehands who can figure out that the red soco goes to the red soco on the next truss without being told. This isn’t the case often enough that I’m surprised when I have hands who read labels and apply basic logic when assembling them.

Sometimes, this is a problem of the person running the crew. That’s also a problem I’ve written about, and it’s fair to say that there are many crew chiefs who are simply bad at running their crew. It happens, and I acknowledge this, but it’s not what we’re talking about today. For the sake of our discussion, we’ll remove the crew chief from the picture and assume they’re a good one for the time being.

Take the example of followspots. Followspots are somewhat notoriously staffed by people who are the lowest-ranked and least-skilled people on the call because people assume that they don’t require any special skills to operate. But this is not true: followspotting is a skill like any other, you have to learn the location of the controls, how they feel, how the followspot itself feels in its yoke, how it responds and moves and how to listen to and execute commands over a headset.

I’ve seen bills for labor calls, and seen the line item for followspot operators. We’re talking about making $400-600 for a show. That’s a high price, and it’s high even if the followspot ops are really good, which they rarely are. Automated followspot systems like Follow Me, the Robe RoboSpot, and Ground Control help to ameliorate some of the problem, but not all shows have the cash to carry those, so sometimes you’re stuck with house spots.

Our requirement, then, was that unions that provide stagehands need to provide a skilled workforce – skilled stagehands. In my estimation, this is a mixed bag, and completely geography-dependent. When they fail to provide a reasonably skilled workforce, there’s not a good reason to choose union hands over any other labor company providing stagehand labor, or, for that matter, simply doing the work at hand yourself.1 And other companies that provide labor for stages – namely, Crew One out of Atlanta – do so with much less of the administrative bullshit that many unions come with at a lower cost to the production.

This last point, the administrative BS and “doing it yourself”, is brought into sharp relief when ones considers the more protectionist chapters of the IA. Obviously, reasonable people will disagree on how, exactly, the nuts and bolts of organized labor is to work. There are chapters of the IA (and IBEW) that have draconian rules regarding who can touch what, to the point where the division of labor becomes onerous and counterproductive. More than once I’ve asked a hand to help me pack a console, or push a case to the dock, only to be told “I’m in department X, I don’t do that.” This sort of inflexibility coupled with the IA’s intransigence to adapt their practices to the varying needs of the various productions they work for is a hinderance, for myself and the production in terms of time, and also in terms of sheer exasperation.

On car shows at McCormick Place, for instance, as a lighting lead, I was not allowed to touch any of the cables that went on the truss, period. I was not allowed to push cases. I was not allowed to hang a moving light. The reasons were standard union fare: “you’re taking food out of my kids’ mouths” was a phrase I heard more than once. But was I, really? We had an agreement for a certain number of days they would be called, and a minimum number of hours. Was I, by wanting to do something other than cool my heels on the cold, unyielding cement floor of McCormick Place, truly representing a threat to the livelihood of the hands from IBEW? I have difficulty believing that I was. I realize this isn’t just an intellectual exercise for these guys; they’re probably not making all that much money and at any given moment, some of them probably are worried about their ability to provide for their family. But the answer does not lie in forcing me to stand, hands firmly in pockets, eyes slowly clouding over while my life flashes before my eyes.2

Does this sort exclusivity with regards to work and what type it is and who can do it add value to the production? Perhaps more importantly, does it contribute to the workday of the average IATSE stagehand? I would argue that it does not. I understand the arguments for: it forces productions to hire a certain number of hands for the tasks that need to be done, and then nobody gets dangerously overworked. But why not hire the same number, but get rid of the hard labor restrictions? If two hands are having trouble lifting a case, why shouldn’t a touring crew person jump in to help? If I push a my own case to the truck because I’m just a rogue like that, the loaders are still hired and making money. The entire mentality of “my job, your job” can be greatly relaxed when it comes to unskilled tasks, and everyone can come to the in and out and make their money.

When the minutiae of a union’s bureaucracy become more important than putting a show together and making it work, the union is no longer adding anything of value. It has become an anchor that cannot be reeled back in; a boat struggling to drag a dead weight through the mud on the way to make the audience happy.

  • Unions need to provide a safe working environment

This is a mixed bag. One the one hand, things like mandatory hard hats when there are up riggers in the air, or making sure people on the stage and loading dock are wearing steel-toed shoes, are precautions that no reasonable person would have a problem with. Often, however, the local IA chapter is bad about these things, or goes overboard, insisting that everybody who is on the arena floor and backstage anywhere needs to be wearing safety gear. This is silly and counterproductive, as people aren’t stupid and will chafe against rules that pay lip service to vague claims of “safety” but that have no plausibility vis a vis actually creating a more safe environment. That said, by and large, IATSE does a decent job with safety, and more often than not the safety violations I see are on tours, where the road crew isn’t all they’re cracked up to be. While IA (and tours) can certainly improve in this area, I think the union – on the whole – does their part to promote a safe working environment.

  • Where IA Becomes A Petty Tyrant

And here we come to the things that unions do that are actively hostile to the production, or counter-productive, annoying, or otherwise dive straight into the realm of petty tyranny. Certain IA chapters like doing things in a capricious and temperamental manner just because they can. Let us speak of so-called “dark stage rules”.

In many IA houses, the union enforces a period during which nobody can work on the stage, at all. Not only can nobody “work” on the stage, nobody can do anything that does anything on the stage, like say, program the lighting desk. Many unions go so far as to forbid anybody from the tour from being behind their own lighting console during a dark stage period, or editing clips in a media server, or doing anything that the union disapproves of. Doing pre-vis work on your computer in the hallway? Violation. Changing DNS settings on the media server? Violation. I’m not making these up! It is incredible to me that tours acquiesce to these sorts of completely unreasonable, unhinged demands, and I’ve seen productions fined for breaking them. And they are often unavoidable – the union often has complete control over the stage and who is allowed on it and when, and they lord this power over the touring crew in small-minded, uncaring, and demeaning ways.

The stated reason for these rules – when stated at all – is to prevent any one person from “stealing” the wages of another by doing work when everyone else is off the clock, or vague reasons of “safety” or, pushing the sophistry to higher and higher levels, “it’s policy”. Which I’ve come to believe is shorthand for “we feel like it”.

None of these are satisfactory. There is no plausible reason, safety-related or otherwise, why the touring crew should be prohibited from working on their own stuff during times when the union is taking a break. That is simply unacceptable. The work we need to perform is often highly skilled, able to be done by only one or two people on the crew, and would not otherwise involve any union personnel anyway. Why should I need a union wonk standing over my shoulder while I program moving lights? They wouldn’t be at the console anyway, they’d be sitting on the stage playing on their phone. That’s not adding value to the production, it doesn’t add value to my day or anyone else’s day. In fact, I will go so far as to say that “dark stage” rules, whatever their original intent may have been, are simply a way for the union to extort money from productions, either through fines or forcing them to have a member of the union on the clock to watch them work. They are simply petty tyranny; forcing the production into regulations that benefit themselves just because they can, and every justification I’ve heard for them rings hollow. Dark stage rules are categorically wrong, and leadership at the IA should ban them going forward.

  • Conclusions

Where does all this leave us?

Well, it leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth, as a formerly-touring LD, for IATSE. Again – and I feel it’s necessary to emphasize this – I am not anti-union. I’m anti-inefficiency. I’m anti-being forced to go hide in a locked room to do pre-viz so some IA wonk doesn’t go tattling on me. I’m pro-being allowed to go up on a “dark stage” and troubleshoot the DNS settings of a persnickety media server without the tour being fined for violating an utterly useless and unjust rule. I think the IA could enact some reforms that would drastically improve their relationship with touring productions, in no particular order:

  1. End dark stage rules, forever and ever, amen. The tour is allowed to do whatever they want to their own gear, whenever they want.
  2. Be flexible on personnel requests, when someone asks a hand for help downstacking a case, give them help without complaining about what department you’re with.
  3. Provide training for the hands on the latest technology they’re likely to see coming through on productions, rent a PA and let them learn how to pin VerTEC or J boxes or whatever. Rent some Source4s and buy a beach ball and a palm tree and some gel, let one hand be the “designer” where they give instructions on how they want the scene lit and everyone else has to do their best to focus the light. Simple fun stuff to give people a chance to actually put their hands on lights and accomplish something, and give them experience, give them skills they can use at the union or somewhere else. Add value to their lives.
  4. Provide followspot training to all hands expected to run one. Or really, just all stagehands. It’s a marketable skill.
  5. Be kind and reasonable.

What I’m not saying here is that the production should just be allowed to run roughshod over the employees of the union, or take advantage of them in any way. I believe in mandatory breaks, I believe in not subjecting people to unsafe working conditions “just this once”, and I believe in people making a good, solid, wage so that they can support themselves and their families. I’m arguing for fairness, on both sides, and to do away with the antagonistic and most egregious protectionism that characterizes so many of my experiences with the International Alliance.

1: Of course, there are very few times that alternatives are going to do a better job running spots than an IA person. It’s a surprisingly skilled job.

2: Further, and particularly with regard to the IBEW hands, these guys were slow. Like, deliberately slow. It takes five guys standing around gazing lovingly at a case of soco before someone can figure out how to start running it. We don’t have to run at a breakneck speed, but there’s no reason to move as though submerged in molasses.

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