Riviera stagehand Lou Svitek (left) and Arise Chicago executive director C.J. Hawking address the crowd gathered in front of the Jam Productions offices for a Halloween-themed union action. Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Late last year the Reader reported on a protest organized by more than 40 Riviera Theatre stagehands who claimed they’d been illegally fired in September 2015 by venerable Chicago-based promoter Jam Productions, which owns and operates several important local venues, including the Riv, Park West, and the Vic Theatre. The workers believed Jam was retaliating because they’d begun signing cards authorizing a union election—but unionization activity is legally protected by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

In April 2016, a settlement between Jam and the National Labor Relations Board forced the company to rehire the fired stagehands, and in June they formally unionized, becoming part of the Chicago chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (aka Stagehands Local 2). But little else about their situation has improved—they claim Jam CEO Jerry Mickelson is stonewalling them, refusing to open negotiations toward a union contract. They’re also being shorted hours, according to labor attorney David Huffman-Gottschling, who’s working for Stagehands Local 2. The stagehands have been working again at the Riviera, he explains, “though not as frequently as before their unlawful termination, as Jam is also continuing to give hours to the replacement employees it hired a year ago after firing the whole crew.” To address this problem, the union filed a new unfair-labor-practices charge with the NLRB  in June, but it’s still pending.

The morning of Thursday, October 20, the stagehands escalated their fight for a contract, organizing a protest with a “trick or treat” theme outside the Jam Productions offices in Old Town. Local clergy gave passionate speeches, the stagehands put on Halloween costumes and chanted along to a live band, and of course the giant inflatable rodent that the protesting workers have named Stinky the Riv Rat made an appearance.

Stinky the Riv Rat keeps an eye on the protest.Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Reverend C.J. Hawking, executive director of a nonprofit interfaith workers alliance called Arise Chicago, urged workers to continue their fight and accused Mickelson of “insults, violations, and immoral conduct.” Stagehands Local 2 representative Craig Carlson delivered Jam a stinging rebuke by complimenting the behavior of its bitter rival Live Nation—that company, he said, isn’t recalcitrant in dealing with unions, and in fact had recently negotiated a contract with Local 2 stagehands at the Aragon Ballroom.  

The protesters hoped not only to raise awareness to the stagehands’ cause but also to deliver a letter to Mickelson from Arise Chicago, formally requesting a meeting to open contract negotiations. “Drawing on our sacred Scriptures, which proclaim that each person is created in the image of God and therefore deserving of dignity and respect,” it begins, “we write to you as religious leaders with a serious concern.”

Father Larry Dowling (left) and Reverend John Thomas of Arise Chicago attempt to deliver a letter to Jam CEO Jerry Mickelson on behalf of unionized Riviera stagehands fighting for a contract.Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Arise representatives Father Larry Dowling and Reverend John Thomas made it past the outer door of Jam’s headquarters with the letter in hand, but they say that as soon as they opened the inner door that led from the entryway to the offices themselves, Jam staffers recognized them as part of the protest and slammed the door in their faces. The clergymen began knocking and were told they’d been let in accidentally—if they refused to leave, Jam would call the police. No one responded to Dowling and Thomas’s requests to hand-deliver the letter to Mickelson.

Bob Reiter, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor (center), addresses the crowd.Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

The Reader reached out to Mickelson for comment, but Jam staff explained that he was out of town. He has yet to respond to a message left with the office. About 15 minutes after Dowling and Thomas left the building, police began to gather on the scene.

The stagehands, part of a crowd of 50 or so, kept their spirits high despite the dreary weather, chanting “No candy—contracts!” Among them was veteran stagehand Jolly Roger, who’s worked for Jam since 1978. Like many of his colleagues, Jolly has been trying to make up for lost hours at the Riv (and other Jam venues) by taking on freelance work—but it’s available only sporadically. “Some of the guys have been doing really well,” he says. “I’ve had to depend on social security.” 

Veteran stagehand Jolly Roger has toured with the likes of Ministry, Ozzy Osbourne, Cheap Trick, and the Pixies.Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

At their protest in November 2015, the stagehands explained that they’d been driven to organize by their need for (among other things) employer-supported health care, better work-life balance, and raises to keep up with inflation and the increasing cost of living. But in the absence of any contract negotiations, they’ve put nothing on paper yet. “A lot of those terms are up to the bargaining unit, but it is just too early to begin prejudging that,” Huffman-Gottschling says. “It is still too early to tell without a seat at the table.”

Jolly Roger hopes a new contract will address safety. “Safety concerns are being ignored. We’ve tried for years to improve safety, and we have been stopped every time,” he says. “For example, the ropes on the fly systems appear to have not been taken care of in years. Somebody could get hurt—and this is at all the venues. Not just the Riviera.” Many of the veteran stagehands who expressed similar concerns before last year’s unionization drive thought of themselves as whistleblowers trying to prevent costly or even tragic accidents—but instead they lost their jobs. Though they’re now working again, albeit not as much as before, contract negotiations show no sign of beginning soon.

A fair contract is even better than a full-size Snickers bar.Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the actual status of the Local 2 contract with Live Nation at the Aragon.