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Local 322 helps Charlotte buck state trend

Stagehands Jason Wilkes, left, and Rocky Amon, members of the Local 322 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Union, build a security fence April 21, 2011, in front of a stage before a Jimmy Buffett concert at the Verizon Wireless Ampitheatre. Photo by Nell Redmond

When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced unionization rates for each state in January, North Carolina was once again dead last with a rate of 3.2 percent.

Yet it is a union — Local 322 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — that is the oldest arts organization in Charlotte, dating back to the turn of the past century. Today it provides stagehands and backstage support for all the city’s major venues that host a variety of performances.

There are 80 paid members, as well as about 150 who are called on an as-needed basis.

The main organization the union members work for — the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, which also runs Knight Theater, Booth Playhouse and Spirit Square — is happy with the arrangement.

Blumenthal is one of the few local venues to have a collective bargaining agreement with the 322.

“The union represents the most qualified work force in theater technology,” PAC President Tom Gabbard said.

In a state with strong anti-union sentiments, Local 322 is used to dealing with a more negative reception.

“People are surprised when they find we don’t have horns,” said Bruce Grier, 322’s business agent. “But we are working people like everyone else. We have families. We go to church. Still, we’re realists. We keep a low profile.”

North Carolina is a right-to-work state, so workers are not required to be union members to get employment.

“Union rules in New York City are a problem,” Gabbard said. “But New York and Charlotte are worlds apart.”

Gabbard said he has heard no complaints from the PAC’s board.

‘We know the vocabulary’

The PAC’s halls and other local venues, such as the city-owned Ovens Auditorium, Bojangles’ Coliseum and Time Warner Cable Arena, as well as the Verizon Amphitheatre and the NC Music Factory, generally have little choice about hiring union workers. Most traveling shows and performers contractually require them to use unionized stagehands.

Gabbard said it makes good business sense.

“Today’s shows are highly complex, and promoters are absolutely dependent on the local crews,” he said. “If they don’t know their stuff, they could wreck a show, costing lots of money and compromising safety.”

Grier, a Charlotte native, said the union acts as “a hiring hall that offers producers a service no one else can. We provide competent stage crews, workers who are trained and experienced. We know the vocabulary and work well together as a team.”

Traveling productions deal directly with the unions when they book venues owned by the city of Charlotte. North Carolina General Statutes 95-98 prohibit governments from negotiating with unions, describing such contracts as “against public policy.”

“Our job is just to facilitate hospitality,” said Tim Newman, chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which manages the city’s performance venues.

“The union workers show up, they work with our staff and the promoters pay them,” he said.

PAC, union negotiate

Whenever it needs workers for its halls, the PAC contacts Local 322. The union fills the call, and the PAC pays the workers directly.

For most of the PAC’s 20-year history, it had a collective-bargaining agreement with the union. Gabbard sought to formalize it.

In 2004, when he negotiated with the 322 for the first time, the status of the Spirit Square arts complex was a major point of contention.

With a representative of the international organization sitting in, Gabbard convinced Local 322 to allow up to four PAC staffers — rather than union members — to work events produced by local nonprofits, such as small theater troupes, at Spirit Square. Volunteer stagehands are allowed in the smallest venue, the Duke Energy Theatre.

Gabbard told the union that his No. 1 focus was to make Spirit Square, on North College Street, more affordable and accessible to the public.

“If we didn’t fix it, the facility would go away and become something else,” he said. “To the union’s credit, they understood we needed to be pragmatic.”

When the contract came up for renewal in 2008, the same kind of flexibility was extended to the Booth Playhouse and the new Stage Door Theater inside the PAC.

Working with rules

But it’s not just about the cost.

“A lot of work rules come with using union members,” Gabbard said.

In 2008, the PAC lost during negotiations with Local 322. Work rules dictate very specific pay scales for load-ins and load-outs for each event.

Gabbard wanted some exceptions.

In essence,” he said, “they (union workers) are paid for eight hours when they only work about 1 1/2 hours.”

The negotiating team, which included an international union representative, supported the change, but the membership of Local 322 voted it down.

The contract is up for renewal in July 2012. Gabbard expects negotiations to start in about a year.

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