At a quarter to noon today, Riviera Theatre stagehands fired by Jam Productions earlier this fall inflated a giant rat outside the Old Town offices of one of the country’s last remaining big independent concert promoters. The workers hung a sign around its neck: “I was knifed by a ‘Jerry Mickelson’ slacker for being a union backer.” The stagehands say the 40 employees that Jam CEO Jerry Mickelson fired in September were let go illegally—they claim he was retaliating because they’d signed cards to authorize a union election. This morning a crowd that included Chicago Federation of Labor secretary and treasurer Bob Reiter, interfaith workers alliance Arise Chicago, former governor Pat Quinn, members of the clergy, and a three-piece band called Chicago Federation of Musicians joined the dozens of stagehands in front of the Jam offices for a rally to get their jobs back.
Among the speakers was veteran stagehand Jolly Roger, who’s worked for Jam since 1978 and has toured with more than 60 bands in his decades in the industry, among them Ministry, Ozzy Osbourne, Cheap Trick, and the Pixies. This six-foot-eight giant choked up while telling reporters about losing his job. “I’m upset that we’ve been stabbed in the back,” Roger said. “I was given a call on the 16th of September: ‘We’ve decided to change our direction.'” Roger was in a truck leaving Wrigley Field, helping unload after the AC/DC concert on September 15, when he received a call from Mickelson informing him that he and several other stagehands at the Riviera had been fired. Jam Productions owns and operates many of Chicago’s large and midsize venues, including the Riv, the Vic Theatre, and Park West.
The stagehands claim they were fired for trying to hold a union election under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board—an attempt to join Stagehands Local 2, which represents technicians in the city’s entertainment industry. “Jam Productions workers are proud that through their work Jam Productions has thrived and made millions of dollars,” said Reverend C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago. “These workers decided to engage their legal and moral rights to hold a union election.” Attorney David Huffman-Gottschling underlined the illegality of the mass firing: “That act was discriminatory.”
Though the stagehands are using legal means to get their jobs reinstated—they’ve filed an unfair-labor-practices complaint with the NLRB—they also hope that Jam will rehire them without being forced to, and that’s what this rally was for. Justin Huffman, one of the fired stagehands, described the financial hardships he’s had to deal with since he lost his job. “In this industry September, October, November are really busy,” he said. “With the holidays approaching, my family and I are stressed.”
The stagehands brought up some of the unresolved demands that drove them to organize—including employer-supported health care, better work-life balance, and raises to keep up with inflation and the increasing cost of living. “I haven’t had a raise in 15 years,” Roger said. (The Reader editorial staff voted to unionize in January, for some of the same reasons, but we’ve yet to arrive at a contract.) I tried to call Mickelson this morning before the rally, but was unable to reach him. Late last month Mickelson made his only public statement on the matter so far to WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis: “There are two sides to every story.” But Jam’s side is still missing.
It’s clear the stagehands want to get back to work, and some have continued to help Jam even after their firings. Jerome Fritz, a 48-year-old stagehand who’s worked for Jam since 2003, was asked to lend a hand at an October 15 Park West show by Hiatus Kaiyote. Fritz said Jam then requested that he come in a couple hours before his shift for a 90-minute meeting, for which he’d get paid his ordinary wage. But in Fritz’s words, it “ended up being a union-buster meeting.” When he went to Park West a couple weeks ago to pick up his check from the gig, he got more bad news. “I was told I wasn’t allowed to go into the building,” he said. Eventually he was allowed into Park West’s foyer to get his money.
Throughout the rally, Roger talked about his fellow stagehands’ expertise, their drive to organize, and their desire to get their jobs back. “Mumford & Sons hired ten of us to go around the country setting up their Gentlemen of the Road show, because we’re the most competent guys around,” he told me. The Riviera is operating as usual with replacement labor; Kendrick Lamar’s tour was originally supposed to stop Thursday at Concord Music Hall, but earlier this week the show was moved to the Riv.
Roger hopes he can get his job back before Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz roll through on November 19—he’s got a lot of friends involved in that tour. Despite the distress the layoffs have caused, Roger and the other stagehands can still have a little fun, and they’ve even named the inflatable rat. “We call it Stinky the Riv Rat, because there’s always been rats at the Riviera,” he said. “They’ve done better lately.”