A funny thing happened to me on the way to The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts the other night to see Love Actually, Live, the classic Christmas-season film with Hugh Grant done up as a combined film cum live spectacle extravaganza with a large cast of actors, dancers, singers, and a sizable live orchestra.
As I rounded the corner onto Santa Monica Boulevard to enter the theater, beautifully converted from the old Beverly Hills Post Office, what do I see but Scabby the Rat, huge and looming, and all decked out in Santa regalia! And he’s carrying a big sign that reads, “Hey Wallis! Show LOVE to your union workers, actually.”
And all around him were three or four of the union stagehands, as well as Allison Smartt, International Representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada, otherwise known as IATSE.
Actually, though the workers at The Wallis did formally take a union representation vote and won it handily, The Wallis has yet to recognize it or even agree on who is eligible to be in it—supervisors, part-timers? Some of the folks trying to unionize have been working at The Wallis ever since it opened in 2013, although apparently, it is only now that a serious attempt at forming a union there has emerged.
With its 500-seat Goldsmith Theater, the 150-seat Lovelace Studio Theater, as well as other less formal performance spaces, The Wallis is far from the biggest theatrical venue in the Los Angeles area, but it is clearly far from the smallest, able to accommodate a show as big as Love Actually, Live. A few of the other theaters in the region whose workers are organized into a union include the Hollywood Bowl, Pantages Theatre, the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum, the Pasadena Playhouse, Microsoft Theater, Ford Amphitheater, and many others.
Perhaps it took until now for the Wallis workers to unionize because it’s a moment for labor militancy across the country. Workers are fed up with being “essential” and treated as “expendable.” The demand is universal for higher wages to meet rising costs and inflation, and for more sensitivity on the part of employers for sick leave, family leave, vacation pay, medical, and other benefits. Large corporations such as John Deere, Kellogg’s, Amazon, and Starbucks are prominent in the news facing widespread worker pushback in terms of labor organizing and strikes.
IATSE itself recently had to threaten an industry-wide strike to secure a new contract, and some divisions of this high, sprawling union have shown their unreadiness to settle for less than they deserve.
“This production of Love Actually, Live has been plagued by labor shortages,” says the flyer union workers have been handing out to theatergoers since Dec.1. “The Wallis declined skilled labor offered by the IATSE, chose not to utilize employees with partial availability and refused to raise wages to a competitive industry rate. As a result, employees have been forced to work over 60 hours a week, multiple weeks in a row, and staffing has been inadequate.
“Where they saved on money, we paid the price—especially the full-time staff—whose right to union representation continues to be denied by The Wallis.”
Cleverly, the leaflet quotes one of the most memorable lines from the show, which filmgoers may recall. It’s when the President of the United States is visiting London to confer with his counterpart, the British Prime Minister, and POTUS says, “I’ll give you anything you ask for—as long as it’s not something I don’t want to give.”
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In conversation with Ms. Smartt, I thought I heard her say something about some staffers being forced to work 80 hours a week, but the flyer says 60. “Yes,” she answered, “we printed them before we knew about the 80 hours. Several full-time staff members worked between 60-81 hours per week for several weeks in preparation for Love Actually, Live.” Those extra hours have not been paid at overtime rates.
The union at The Wallis has put forward a demand for an hourly $25 base rate as well as a full economic proposal that includes health, pension, vacation, and 401k contributions. Understandably, the workers are primarily concerned about wages and benefits, as most of the unit—the “overhires” not on regular staff—do not receive health or retirement benefits. There’s no free parking in toney Beverly Hills, so union members also want to make sure their parking is covered when they come to work. The garage below the theatre can charge up to $22/day, which is more than the gross hourly wage for most, and if you’re working six or seven days a week getting ready to open a new show, that’s well over $100 a week.
The union also wants to ensure that workers can request time off for personal reasons and emergencies during a run of show. Show schedules can be exhausting, and it’s difficult to ask for time away if there is no formal mechanism for someone to cover for you safely and efficiently. Along with that is the demand for the person being trained to safely cover the position appropriately. Safety on the job has become especially salient as an issue in the wake of the recent fatal shooting of a cinematographer on the Rust film set.
One of the most critical issues to resolve is exactly how many members would be eligible as members of the Wallis unit, and how they would be represented. IATSE has several divisions, including stagehands; wardrobe; and hair and make-up workers. There were six votes cast in the election, unanimously for the union, but the unit is in fact much larger than that. Pre-COVID, the Wallis workforce (below the supervisory level) numbered around 60 people. Now about 20 people are working in those three departments in Love Actually, Live for the load-in and/or performances.
At present, negotiations with management are fitful at best. The union has met with the company several times, but one of the main issues is the inclusion of their full-time stagehands in the bargaining unit.
The stagehands I met outside the theater were sincerely wishing their “beloved patrons” a lovely night of theater, on the show they’d worked so hard on. The leafletting—and Scabby the Rat—were only informational, to bring awareness to the audience and ask for their support. The leaflet says:
“The Wallis chose money over the safety and well-being of their employees.
“We are asking for reasonable work weeks and proper staffing—The Wallis doesn’t want to spend the money.
“We are asking for respect—The Wallis doesn’t want to give us that consideration.”
Finally, the leaflet asks theatergoers and all union supporters to tell The Wallis to grant the workers’ holiday wishes by emailing the Executive Director Rachel Fine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric A. Gordon