Star Plaza’s Backstage Fracas

Stagehands do some of the most thankless work in show business: unless a performance is hindered by serious sound or lighting problems, most folks don’t even know they exist. Now a group of Chicago-area stagehands who worked at the Star Plaza Theatre, in Merrillville, Indiana, are trying to get noticed–not for what they’re doing, but for what they’re not. In November the Star Plaza dismissed its pool of about 100 stagehands and replaced them with employees of Proton, a stagehand broker in Fairfield, Ohio, that also serves Indianapolis’s Deer Creek Music Center. Charles Blum, Star Plaza’s president and talent buyer, says the theater was simply trying to make ends meet in the face of declining concert revenues. But workers claim they were canned because they planned to join a union–and now they’re waiting to see if the National Labor Relations Board agrees.

At the Star Plaza, stagehands could work an average of only 20 hours a week, and like many part-time nonunion workers, they weren’t entitled to health insurance or a pension. Blum says they were told up front not to rely on Star Plaza as their primary source of income, and indeed, some put together jobs at a variety of venues to make a living. The starting rate for stagehands at Star Plaza was $7 per hour, and none made much more than $10. Though their hours aren’t guaranteed either, stagehands at the slightly larger Rosemont Theatre–a union shop–make about $24 and get benefits. So in June, four members of the pool approached Bob Bakalar, the business manager of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 125.

Before workers at a given company can vote on whether to unionize, a petition must be submitted to the National Labor Relations Board with the signatures of at least a third of the workforce. Over the next month Bakalar gathered the support of more than 30 Star Plaza stagehands, then filed for an election. But two days before the union determination meeting, at which the board examines the employer’s payroll records to ensure that there are enough signatures for a vote, a stagehand organizer Bakalar declines to identify came to him and asked him to pull the petition. “He said everybody was afraid of losing their jobs, and that maybe this wasn’t the right time,” Bakalar says.

Rick Wilbanks, who had just started working for Star Plaza in May, says that on July 31 Blum called the stagehands to a meeting. “He did a lot of bad-rapping of unions, telling us we would have to pay union dues and things like that….He gave a scenario-type situation. He said, ‘Let’s say, for example, that the union did win an election here and was voted in. All we are required to do by law is negotiate in good faith for one year. That does not mean that we have to reach an agreement. At the end of the one year if an agreement was not reached, chances are you people wouldn’t want to work without a contract and you’d go on strike and we could replace you permanently.'”

“He said that hypothetically we could be replaced,” says Mike Nelson, a four-year member of the pool.

Blum says no threats were made, hypothetical or otherwise. “We were required to notify them that the petition had been filed, and every employer in that case then says what the next step would be.” But when asked if he had outlined possible actions Star Plaza might take to fight a union, he said, “We didn’t make any statements about that since we couldn’t know what the outcome would be.”

By the end of the summer, Bakalar says, “85 percent” of those who had signed the petition had gotten back in touch with him, and at the end of September he gathered up their union cards and started meeting with more pool members. Right around the same time, the stagehands received a letter signed by Blum. It referred to the past nine months as a “financial roller coaster,” but expressed optimism about the year’s final quarter and announced an across-the-board ten percent raise, effective October 18. It also said the stagehands would be “required to sign a ‘Pool Status Agreement’ which clearly outlines our policies and mutual obligations.” Condition number three of that agreement stated: “I may be removed from the pool at anytime without cause and at the discretion of Star Plaza Theatre management. Removal from the pool may be for reasons including, but not limited to insubordination or a poor work-related attitude.”

Though the letter explicitly connected the raise to the stagehands’ “hard work and dedication,” Blum told me that it came at the same time as the mandatory increase in minimum wage and was primarily designed to keep the pay scale fair. And the agreement, he says, was just a written acknowledgment of the conditions stagehands had always worked under. Still, according to several stagehands, management seemed impatient to get it on paper. “They told us that if we didn’t sign the agreement we would not receive our paychecks that week,” says Nelson. Blum flatly denies this. Wilbanks says he doesn’t know anyone who didn’t sign it, but that many who did had reservations.

On November 20, just days before Bakalar planned to file the new petition, the stagehands were called into another meeting and fired. “It came as a shock to all of us,” Wilbanks says. “We all walked in and it was like lambs to the slaughter.” On December 15 the union filed a charge against Star Plaza with the National Labor Relations Board. It alleges that the company “unlawfully threatened its production assistants (stagehands and related employees) with the elimination of their jobs if they and the Union persisted in attempting to organize said employees.”

A representative of Proton also attended the termination meeting, to accept job applications. But on December 31 the union filed a separate charge against both Star Plaza and Proton, alleging that they had “acted independently and/or in concert in illegally refusing to hire/utilize the [former] stage employees…because of the employees’ desire to be represented by the…Union for purposes of collective bargaining.” A Proton spokesperson referred me to the company’s attorney, who at press time had not returned two phone calls. But Blum denies both charges against Star Plaza, and claims he’s seen at least two stagehands on the picket line who now work for Proton.

“They did hire a couple of our people as tokens, four or five, but their hours are drastically reduced and their salaries are nothing,” says Paul Berkowitz, the union’s attorney.

A letter the stagehands received upon being fired laid the blame on poor financial performance. Charts published annually in the trade magazine Performance would seem to contradict that, showing that the 3,400-seat Star Plaza has ranked among the top four theaters of its size in gross ticket sales nationwide since 1992. But Blum argues that net sales are what matter, and he’s probably right. It’s hardly news that the asking price of major acts has gone through the roof in recent years, and that has surely cut promoters’ profits: Blum points out that the New Edition concert in July was simultaneously one of Star Plaza’s highest grosses and one of its biggest money losers.

Blum declines to reveal how much money he believes Star Plaza will save with Proton, but says the theater was able to eliminate its human resources department and cut payroll and training expenses. “The savings are significant over time,” he says, “and we’ve already seen immediate savings week to week.”

Since December, prounion stagehands have been demonstrating during shows at the Star Plaza; Bakalar estimates they’ve picketed between 60 and 70 percent of the events since the firing. Because it has a large industrial sector, northwest Indiana has a long tradition of supporting labor, so Bakalar has also written letters to AFL-CIO affiliates asking them to boycott the theater and the adjoining Radisson hotel. And with elections looming, he hopes to drag local pols into the fray as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rick Williams and Mike Nelson photo by Marty Perez.