Stagehands Circumvented for First Night

Pittsburgh Stagehands Circumvented for First Night

by Lisa A. Miles 12/21/2011




Perhaps you’ve heard.  With the exception of one small stage outside the Benedum Center, Pittsburgh Stagehands haven’t been working First Night’s outdoor stages each passing Dec. 31st.

The City of Pittsburgh allowed for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to take over management of the event several years ago, and the Cultural Trust hires other workers to set up and work the majority of all the stages represented at the event, one that has been consistently expanding.  The same goes for other events, as well, around the City of Pittsburgh.

You’d think a city with a vibrant cultural district would have plenty of work for their professional theatrical and stage employees, no?  It hasn’t been so.  Many events, with many stages set up and running with entertainment over the years, but not much use of Pittsburgh Stagehands.

But the story gets even stranger.

The Cultural Trust has employees who do the very work as is required for the City’s New Year’s Eve celebration, as well as the Three Rivers Arts Festival, also now under their control.  They have the professionals already on the payroll.

Who are they?  These very Pittsburgh’s Stagehands!  Members of IATSE Local 3, the International Alliance of Theatrical & Stage Employees.  The same brotherhood of workers setting up Broadway stages and mega rock concerts all across the country.  In Pittsburgh, these guys (and gals) do everything from building props and scenery for A Christmas Carol to making sure U2 sounds cool in a football stadium, of all places.  And yes, along with a few others, they work for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.  Who else is going to professionally run sound and lights at the Benedum Center and seamlessly work together to unload semis full of half-ton equipment in the middle of the night, to get a show’s lights, sound and props securely packed up and on its way while the next one gets moved into the theatre by mid-morning?  (The Benedum is one of the largest theaters in the country and is considered a premier stage.)

In a Post-Gazette article dated Dec. 17, 2011, even J. Kevin McMahon, President of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said of the stagehands, “Obviously, we respect them.  They’re skilled members of the Trust family.”

But this is just lip service– for the ultimate disrespect is to be circumvented for other labor.

The vast majority of Stagehands are under-employed.  Like artists and other creative professionals whom society has a hard time seeing as workers, they are consistently underemployed.  But certainly not underskilled, which should be obvious if you’ve ever attended a great rock show with the rigging of heavy, state-of-the-art equipment high up above, making the show sound and look just right, perched precipitously above performers’ and audience heads.  (Stagehands actually descend from sailors, rigging big ships back in the day.) Ever wonder not what, but who is behind the scenes to pull that off?

It is Pittsburgh Stagehands, that’s who.  It may be rock and roll and Broadway shows, but these guys not only have the finesse to run spotlights and intricate sound systems, but do heavy, hard work that takes its toll on the body.  You can’t get any more working class than a seasoned stagehand.

These guys, already employees of the Cultural Trust, are the work force who ought to be employed at First Night stages.  Not to mention the Three Rivers Arts Festival, Three Rivers Regatta, and the Dollar Bank Jamboree.  What’s the deal?  Isn’t Pittsburgh known for the working class?  And what do all of these event stages have in common?  Tax dollars, public money…. (See where this is going?)

On Monday, Dec. 19th, sixty IATSE stagehands, along with their union President, Business Agent, and Secretary, respectfully went to City Council Chambers, “seeking a solution to [their] concerns.”  A solution, and requisite answers, that they have been seeking for some time. They approached the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust one year ago, December 2010, about using the professionals already on their payroll to work First Night.  A reply didn’t come until the end of January.  “The Trust assumed these events at the request of the City.”  They further stated to IATSE that “part of the deal for taking over these events was to keep everything the same and that excluded the use of Local 3 Pittsburgh Stagehands.”

Why?  And did the Mayor’s office really mandate that?

City Council President Darlene Harris, also Theresa Kail-Smith, and especially Bill Peduto have been helpful in hearing IATSE’s concerns, wanting to achieve a resolve.  They have directed specific questions to the Mayor’s office, however, as that is where any such agreement would have been forged.  Mayor Ravenstahl has yet to answer that significant query or provide the Stagehands with a copy of any Agreement, despite repeated requests.

IATSE was to meet with the Mayor a few weeks ago, to hopefully find out once and for all.  This was set up with the assistance of Jack Shea, President of the Allegheny County Labor Council.  But when the IATSE representatives arrived at the Grant Street offices, the Trust’s Kevin McMahon was just exiting Mayor Ravenstahl’s office.  Instead of answers, the two parties were put in a room to work out their differences.

Shawn Foyle, IATSE Secretary, says that the Pittsburgh Stagehands are the workers who logically should be working the stages for the Dec. 31st event.  Among other things, a special package, what is known as a “festival rate,” was offered the Trust from IATSE, and even an agreement that any mutual decision does not have to be put into a contract.  Simply employing the Stagehands was the matter at hand.

But the reply?  The same as in January.  The Trust said, according to an IATSE letter back to the Mayor’s office, that the Stagehands “have the theaters and do not get to work these events.  It is a business decision.” 

Now wait a minute.  Who does the Cultural Trust (or Mayor’s office) think it is, telling Pittsburgh Stagehands, one of the oldest professional affiliations in the country (hence the #3 behind Local) that they “do not get to work” certain stages?  Stagehands work stages– any and all entertainment.  And if those stages are supported by tax money, in fact promoted and acclaimed as family-friendly and good for the local economy through City departments, then they sure as hell should be employing Pittsburgh Stagehands– who are not only the professionals who have proudly done that work for over a century in this country, but are a part of the fabric of Pittsburgh’s working class.

IATSE Business Agent Bob Brown defines the Cultural Trust’s “business decision” as clearly one to “utilize an independent contractor for these First Night and Arts Festival events in order to avoid paying prevailing industry standards.”

An independent contractor?  Now, the shell game of ducking responsibility for worker rights is a known phenomenon certainly to stagehands that have “been around,” working for greedy concert promoters in underground clubs before becoming wise to the fact that the work they do deserves respect and a living wage.  But we’re not talking about a rock club here.  This is the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the city’s darling, do-know-wrong cultural advocates. 

You see, any once-non-unionized stagehand will tell you from painful personal history that there are “paper companies” out there, designed to foil the best-laid plans of a worker attempting to get his check on payday for working Pittsburgh clubs– calling around from office to office based in Ohio wondering whereto details of his hours evaporated.  Or better yet, after hours of back-breaking labor unloading sound and light equipment from three semis at a local club, being told by a representative of another representative of another of management, that the entertainer cancelled and there was just no way to afford to pay the labor.  So one $10 bill was passed out to each hand.  This was the 1990s.  

Is the Trust doing something even remotely similar?   

“Nothing is stopping the Trust from hiring within IATSE Local 3,” says Brown and Foyle.  But instead they are going with a subcontractor who helps them duck and dodge the relevant labor questions as presented here.  They utilize a company called Flyspace Productions, whose website would have one believe it is just two happy graduates from CMU School of the Arts, ironically, providing good services to the Trust.  But Flyspace was paid $146,000 (a figure from a couple years back) to provide workers outside the Pittsburgh Stagehands for the Trust.  Sometimes well outside.  Pittsburgh Stagehands have seen Ohio “crews” (makeshift, that is) brought in for Pittsburgh events.  (Maybe that’s because all the professionals are affiliated with IATSE or its sister film union here in town.) 

Now, Flyspace doesn’t just supply the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.  They offer their ‘services’ for a long list of other Pittsburgh cultural institutions, too numerous to name here.  So try multiplying a bit that number from two years ago (before expansion of First Night stages) and then think on how much of that honestly might have gone for the labor of those actual outside workers they supplied to man the stages. (Finally, compare it to a figure put out toward the end of this article by Bob Brown.) 

A call was put out to Flyspace by this writer to inquire of the hourly wage offered to the outside workers for First Night stages.  He stated that $18 – $40 per hour is being paid.  Less but similarly ridiculous, Cultural Trust President McMahon informed the press (Dec. 18, 2011 Pgh. Post-Gazette) that the wage they were paying these outside workers, none of them individuals from the professional Pittsburgh Stagehands, was $20.50 per hour.  

Remember that “festival rate” IATSE was willing to negotiate?  Its less than $20.50 per hour, what McMahon said these other workers are being hired for.  (Flyspace’s figures are too silly to even comment on.)

In fact, consider this statistic– Senior “A-list” IATSE hands make just under $24 per hour, and  most other hands make about $22.50 per hour from the Cultural Trust for most work on the theater district stages (sometimes less, as in the Byham Theatre rate starting around $17 per hour.)  So are we to believe that the Trust hires nonprofessionals outside the Stagehands at a rate comparable or even higher than their payroll puts out normally for an average Pittsburgh Stagehand to work a theater show?

Either Flyspace and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust are not giving out accurate wage figures or they have decided to pay outside workers even more than Pittsburgh Stagehands!  Likely the former (any less damning?), but according to IATSE’s Foyle and Brown, the money is less a concern for the Trust than the matter of “jurisdiction” coming into play, and union collective bargaining.  After all, how dare Pittsburgh Stagehands think they are the ones with the expertise to work the stages of events in the region?

(By the way if you haven’t figured it out, IATSE members would gladly work First Night at $20.50 per hour, or even at the lower festival rate.)

So why the misinformation?  Doe the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (and the Mayor’s office) think the Stagehands won’t eventually speak up and say there is something a little off here?  Do they think the public will just continue to buy it?  

The Trust’s McMahon is also paraphrased, in the recent Post-Gazette article, that he’s “concerned about the long-term financial effects”  of changing the arrangement set in place by the City.”  (italics mine; quote reporter J. Smydo)  This is an entity, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, whose senior executive makes $575,000 plus benefits, not to mention the real estate assets of the organization, which are through the roof.  They receive tax dollars through the PA Dept. of Community and Economic Development and major RAD (Regional Asset District) money now at $850,000 per year (an increase from last year of 6.25%)

Bob Brown says it simply–  “Local workers should be hired at a fair wage, not a substandard wage.” They should not be “exploited” by the likes of the Cultural Trust or its subcontractors that conveniently shield the ethical responsibility of their “business decision.”

One of the many proposals offered by IATSE to the Trust to help resolve the impasse has been to bring these other workers into the fold, much like the once-non-unionized rock club stagehands were in 2000, with the great success of negotiating a contract for the old Amphitheater at Station Square (temporary, and only after the great strife of a picket line to bring down Ohio-based Main Event, an elusive subsidiary of Clear Channel).  IATSE has always been willing to embrace anyone interested in beginning stage work, or the experienced worker on the fringe who never thought his toil could amount to a real living wage for he and his family, with benefits of pension, medical, and disability– not to mention respect.

The outside hires whom the Cultural Trust is making (or should we say Flyspace?) is often green young kids, for the most part (sadly are also left out of this economy). A call is put out with low wage (quite possibly about $12 per hour) with no benefits, real regulation of hours or safety.  (The safety of the public around the non-professionally attended stage as well as the hires themselves.)  Should one of these individuals decide to go back year after year for this type of work, it is surely because they simply know no better– believing management’s cry that they who make ten, fifteen times more can not afford to pay out anymore.  But there is no consistency, of course no job security or set crew– just the latest round of workers unwise to their right to a living wage, and uneducated apparently (as the general public) to the fact that there are professionals in this city that literally “know the ropes” far better after decades in this profession.


Before the stagehands and their families walked through downtown and later packed Council Chambers, back at IATSE Local 3’s offices in the a.m., “Bobby” Brown told his crew, “I know you guys are tired of hearing about stage work in the City that is not available to you.  I know you know what is going on.  It is obvious to us, as we see not only Pittsburgh tax-funded event stages not staffed by us, but venues going up across the river without our labor as well.”  (He’s talking about Stage AE on the North Shore, also a place that should be hiring Pittsburgh Stagehands.  Brown and Foyle point out the irony that, why would a private venue use local workers when City-sanctioned events don’t use them to man those stages?)

Bob Brown presented to Council that, “As Stagehands, these events are clearly work that is part of our expertise and skill sets and the type of work we routinely perform.”  As well, he suggested projects like First Night and the Three Rivers Arts Festival are to “enhance the economic development of the city…. Local workers within the region should be hired at a fair wage enabling them to live a quality life and contribute to the local economy, opposed to breaching the public trust and creating an exploitative environment for those workers utilized at substandard wages and conditions.”

Brown, Foyle and the rest of Local 3 would like to see it legislated– if a company is going to accept taxpayers money, and conduct events deemed city-sanctioned, then there needs to be transparency and accountability and a requirement that wages are paid to workers “with parity to union employees rather than engaging labor contractors that insulate the true employer from workers rights under the National Labor Relations Act.”  So that these so-called cultural entities, those that are supposed to be for the good of the arts and humanities, actually regard  the art workers who make it happen, and who in effect justify an administrator pulling in any salary.

Bob Brown ran the numbers.  Estimating the hand count originally given Local 3, and the potential man-hours involved, including possible overtime to cover all bases and provide the best possible approximation, the cash outlay on the part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, if they would hire IATSE stagehands, would be about $22,000.  “An insignificant amount,” says Bob, to a company that “retains 87 million in unrestricted assets.”

But to the stagehands and their families, it couldn’t be more significant.  More needed work.  Not enough to quite make for a comfortable middle-class life yet, just more needed work.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust just continues its excuses, while the Mayor’s office has completely evaded answering any questions or addressing the ethical responsibility.  IATSE Local 3 will certainly continue to pursue political leaders for assistance and change, and is especially thankful for Councilman Peduto’s diligent assistance on the matter.

But IATSE is moving forward, bringing this injustice to light and asking the public to look for the stagehands and their families downtown early on New Years Eve, passing out handbills in protest.  Better yet, contact the Trust, Stage AE and others to say you’ll be not attending events that circumvent local professionals, and demand of the Mayor’s office the due labor for Pittsburgh stagehands. 

It is unacceptable to IATSE that they have gotten no resolution about these event stages for years now.  They have thus put out a call Dec. 31st to OCCUPY STAGES, just the beginning, an ‘opening act,’ as these entities seem to want to continue to take tax dollars and then circumvent the working class.


Contact IATSE: 

Lisa’s husband is an IATSE Local 3 Stagehand.  She is a musician and author of two books, and currently at work on a third– Creative Folly:  The Illusory Support of Artists by American Arts Organizations and Funders.