Union stagehands picketed a performance at Merrill Auditorium Thursday to pressure the city of Portland to renegotiate an exclusive union labor agreement for the venue.

Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 114 passed out pamphlets to audience members on their way into the auditorium to see a performance by comedian Chelsea Handler. Roughly 75 to 100 union members participated.

The performance used non-union stagehands from Production Services of Maine, despite a decades-long understanding that Local 114 is the exclusive provider of labor for the venue, said union Business Manager Doug Born.

“We have been the de facto sole provider of stage labor since Merrill Auditorium reopened in 1997, mainly because we were the only game in town,” Born said. “What we hope to accomplish is to restore what we’ve had, which is an agreement with the city to be the exclusive stage labor at the auditorium.”

The city and union had a written exclusivity agreement for more than 10 years, with the most recent contract being signed in 2018 and expiring in summer 2020. Event promoters such as Portland Ovations hire and pay union members for stage work.

Handler’s performance on Thursday, put on by California-based event promoter LiveNation, is the first show to use stagehands from outside the union, the city said.

Born said Portland officials have declined to discuss renewing the labor agreement, citing staff furloughs and other disruptions to city business that happened in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. The union has repeatedly asked to renegotiate its agreement or extend it to allow the city time to regroup, he said.

Instead, Portland plans to put out a request for proposals for stage labor at Merrill. It said the union could submit a bid for that work.

“They kept putting us off, we got lots of reassurances that it was all good, and we just heard about the (plan to issue a request for proposals) last week,” Born said.

Members and supporters of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 114 hold an informational picket outside Merrill Auditorium while patrons line up to get into Chelsea Handler’s show on Thursday. The show, put on by California-based LiveNation, was the first show to use stagehands from outside the union, the city said.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland intends to send out its request for proposals early next year, said city Communications Director Jessica Grondin. Former City Manager Jon Jennings and the city staff decided to put the work out to bid “as a result of the pandemic and some questions regarding a failure to fulfill a labor call for a recent performance,” Grondin said.

The city discussed several months ago the union contract and the plan to issue a request for proposals, Grondin said. That decision was communicated to the union president, she added, and city staff discussed an interim agreement to address upcoming performances until the bid process could be completed.

“(The union) is, however, the labor provider hired by numerous promoters for all upcoming holiday shows after tonight’s show,” Grondin said.

Born said the union was unable to fill eight of 45 stagehand positions hired for a production of the musical “Rent” in late October. As the promoter, Portland Ovations was required to pay a penalty for the labor shortfall, Born said.

Using the “Rent” example as a pretext to allow non-union labor at Merrill is “disingenuous” of the city, Born said. His union is grappling with the same challenging labor market experienced across the country.

“I case anyone hasn’t alerted ‘Rent,’ there is a gigantic labor shortage everywhere – what is happening at ‘Rent’ is happening across all industries,” Born said. “We are not buying the ‘Rent’ thing – we are fairly certain the decision to go the direction they went predates that.”


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