Home Event venue Union stagehands demand new contract for Merrill auditorium

Union stagehands demand new contract for Merrill auditorium

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Union machinists staged a performance at the Merrill Auditorium on Thursday to pressure the city of Portland to renegotiate an exclusive union labor agreement for the venue.

Members of Local 114 of the International Alliance of Theater Workers handed out brochures to members of the public who came to the auditorium to watch a performance by actress Chelsea Handler. About 75 to 100 union members attended.

The show used non-union stagehands from Production Services of Maine, despite a decades-long understanding that Local 114 is the exclusive supplier of labor for the venue, union business manager Doug Born said.

“We are de facto the sole supplier of stage labor since the Merrill Auditorium reopened in 1997, mainly because we were the only game in town,” Born said. “What we hope to accomplish is restore what we had, which is an agreement with the city to be the exclusive workforce for the auditorium.”

The city and the 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. Event promoters such as Portland Ovations hire and pay members. union for work on stage.

Handler’s performance Thursday, hosted by California-based event promoter LiveNation, is the first show to use stagehands outside the union, the city said.

Born said Portland officials declined to discuss the renewal of the labor agreement, citing staff leaves and other disruptions to the city’s operations that occurred in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic . The union has repeatedly asked to renegotiate its deal or extend it to allow the city 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 putting us off, we got a lot of assurances that everything was fine, and we just heard about the (project to put out a request for proposals) last week,” Born said.

Members and supporters of the International Theater Employees Alliance, Local 114, hold an information picket outside the Merrill Auditorium as patrons line up for the Chelsea Handler show on Thursday . The show, hosted by California-based LiveNation, was the first show to use stagehands outside the union, the city said. Brianna Soukup / Staff Photographer

Portland intends to send out its request for proposals early next year, said Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director. Former city manager Jon Jennings and city staff have decided to go ahead with the work to bid “due to the pandemic and some issues surrounding non-compliance with a call for labor for a recent performance, ”said Grondin.

The city discussed the union contract and plans to issue a request for proposals several months ago, Grondin said. The decision was communicated to the union president, she added, and city staff discussed a tentative deal to handle upcoming performances until the nomination process can be completed.

“(The Union) is, however, the labor provider hired by many promoters for all holiday shows coming up after tonight’s show,” said Grondin.

Born said the union was unable to fill eight of the 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 the lack of manpower, Born said.

Using the example of “rent” as a pretext to authorize non-union work at Merrill is “dishonest” for the city, Born said. His union struggles with the same difficult labor market as the one across the country.

“If someone hasn’t alerted ‘Lent’, there’s a gigantic labor shortage everywhere – what happens at ‘Rent’ is happening in all industries,” Born said. “We’re not buying the ‘rent’ thing – we’re pretty sure the decision to go in the direction they took predated that.”


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