A proposed contract with the stagehands who work at Century II has been unanimously rejected by the Wichita City Council, which sent it back for further negotiations to address concerns raised by Music Theatre Wichita, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Music Theatre for Young People.
The nonprofit theater organizations, based in the city-owned performing arts and convention center, went before the council Tuesday to say that the new contract would adversely affect their organizations.
Union and city officials said the new contract is an attempt to clarify the work roles at Century II and that they did not think it would harm the nonprofits.
The executive directors of the arts groups said rules requiring more union labor for their shows could drive them to bankruptcy. They also said they were informed of the new contract after the union had voted on it, when it was too late to have input. The theater and music groups pay the stagehands.
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Don Reinhold, CEO of the Wichita Symphony, praised the union and its workers and said he didn’t come to pick a fight with them.
“I’m here to ask who rightfully represents us, and how much input are we entitled to in decisions that impact not just our daily operations and bottom line, but quite possibly our very survival,” he said.
The main sticking point is how much the organizations can rely on nonunion help in staging their shows.
Music Theatre Wichita especially relies heavily on paid college students learning the theater business and unpaid high school interns working for experience and education.
About 80 percent of the people working on an MTW show are nonunion help, working under supervision of union professionals, said Wayne Bryan, artistic director.
Bryan estimated the new contract would add $67,000 to the $110,000 MTW has budgeted this year for union stage help.
MTW is the largest rent-payer at Century II and Wichita’s No. 1 employer of stagehands, he said.
A closer balance
Tom Harms, the union’s business agent, said after the meeting that he thinks the $67,000 is an overestimation based on an incorrect understanding of the contract.
And union negotiator Tim McCulloch vehemently shook his head “no” when Bryan said that if the contract were approved, he’d have to hire a four-person crew for four hours just to transport a few petticoats from the warehouse to Century II for a rehearsal.
Union officials said they don’t want to end the educational program and certainly don’t want to drive their employers out of business.
But they do want a closer balance of union to nonunion workers. Now, there are about five students for each union worker on an MTW show. The union wants to make that ratio one-to-one.
McCulloch said after the meeting that he’ll consult with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’ national organization to determine how to proceed.
Kim Gee Vines, executive director of Music Theatre for Young People, said she’s confident the problems will be worked out.
She said she talked with some of the union representatives after the meeting and those talks “were not reflective of a dysfunctional relationship.”
‘Elephant in the room’
Assistant City Attorney Steve Smart, a member of the city’s negotiating team, said it would be unusual to include tenants in the negotiating process and recommended the city not do that.
He said the contract was designed to bring consistent treatment to all users of Century II, so city staff doesn’t have to continue to arbitrate disputes over the current 27-year-old contract and all the written and handshake agreements that have been added over time.
But council member Janet Miller said the new contract adds to the confusion.
Council member Pete Meitzner said the arts organizations have made Wichita a cultural center of the Midwest and that he thinks the contract puts too much control in hands of the union. The organizations could ask for exemptions they have now, but the union would decide, he said.
“Obviously the elephant in the room is ‘Will the union be heavy handed?’ ” he said.