Arts & Culture

Union stagehand pact threatens theater and other arts groups, they say

Wichita arts organizations, including Music Theatre Wichita, are upset they weren’t consulted about a contract between the city of Wichita and a stagehand union that affects the groups.
Wichita arts organizations, including Music Theatre Wichita, are upset they weren’t consulted about a contract between the city of Wichita and a stagehand union that affects the groups. File photo

A proposed union contract for stagehands has City Hall facing a revolt from Wichita Music Theatre and other not-for-profit arts organizations based at the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center.

The new labor pact “includes radical changes for the resident arts organizations which, if enacted, could literally cause the closing of our businesses,” said a letter to the City Council signed by the executive directors of Music Theatre Wichita, Music Theatre for Young People and the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.

City officials and the union say the rules shouldn’t change things that dramatically.

The arts groups say the new pact would fall hardest on Music Theatre Wichita.

If the City Council approves the contract and it’s enforced as written, the music theater might have to hire union stagehands to do work now shared with nonunion summer college employees and unpaid high school interns, said Wayne Bryan, the organization’s executive and artistic director.

For example, he said, the work rules could require him to bring in a crew of four union workers for four hours minimum for a task as simple as moving a couple of costumes from the warehouse to Century II.

He said Music Theatre Wichita spends about $110,000 a year for union stagehand work, and the new contract is projected to increase that by about 65 percent.

It also threatens the longstanding educational program at the music theater that has provided hundreds of college and high school students with training, work experience and their first break in the theater world, Bryan said.

Contract language

Ben Juhnke, a member and former business agent of the union, said students would still be able to work with the professional stagehands, although the ratio of stagehands to students may change.

Juhnke himself started as a Wichita State University student and worked for the music theater before becoming a union stagehand.

He said there are differing interpretations of the contract language, but its intent is to “get more professional workers on; it’s not to eliminate student workers.”

He said there’s now about a 5-1 ratio of students to professionals in the stage crews. Ideally, a 1-1 relationship would be better, to “foster more of a mentor relationship,” he said.

Bryan said his organization has always had a good relationship with unions and isn’t opposed to stagehands making more money.

But he said the new contract appears to have been written mostly for traveling shows such as the “Lion King” and “Wicked,” which come to town with skeleton crews, hire local stagehands and sell millions of dollars in tickets.

The big problem is that a paragraph exempting local theaters’ educational ventures from some contract provisions – which had been included in all previous contracts – was removed in the new pact, he said.

Not consulted

The executive directors of the arts organizations told City Council members they’re highly displeased they weren’t consulted in the contract process, because they have to pay the stagehands.

“We’re hiring them but hiring them on terms where we have no bargaining position,” said Don Reinhold, CEO of the symphony. “That strikes me as a little weird.”

Although negotiations were ongoing for 18 months, “We only learned of the existence of the contract via email on April 17, 2017 – a mere seven weeks ago – when it was shared with us in a reportedly ‘final’ state,” the directors’ letter said.

The directors said they were asked to look at the contract and voice any concerns, but when they did, city officials told them no changes would be discussed. Efforts to raise issues with the union “also proved to be a dead end,” the letter said.

Union facility

John D’Angelo, the city’s director of arts and cultural services, said it would have been improper to include the Century II tenants in the labor negotiations.

“The contract is between the city of Wichita and the union,” D’Angelo said. “Third parties, to have them as part of the negotiations, we don’t typically do that ever.”

He said the city sought the tenants’ input once the contract was completed and passed their concerns along to the union as well.

Century II has been a union house since the start, and it has to remain that way to host “yellow-card” shows produced by top-tier traveling companies that have a blanket contract for their traveling workers and local hires, D’Angelo said.

He also said the existing contract dates back to 1991 and is “very dated.”

The arts organizations plan to ask the City Council to put the contract on hold until their concerns can be addressed.

The council is scheduled to consider the pact at its meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 455 N. Main.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas