When the Curtain Closes Backstage
College Street Music Hall Stagehands’ Fight For a Fair Contract During COVID-19
“S TA YSAFE & H EALTHY / SE EY OUS O ON” read the black letters (with some effort) arrayed on the white strip that overhangs the entrance to College Street Music Hall. As a passerby, the discombobulation of the well-meaning message is sort of funny, and sort of sad. It exudes a carelessness we might expect from an establishment neglected by the public as live performance gatherings are incompatible with public health. But looking across the street, you notice parallel the COVID-19 signage at the Shubert Theater –– two glass-encased, glossy posters that say “The Show Must Go On! But for now, we will take a brief intermission…” Maybe, it seems, the College Street Music Hall is struggling to follow its own message.
This small point of contrast between the two theaters’ exteriors makes some sense given that College Street Music Hall is not taking care of its stagehands in the way that its neighbor and many other Connecticut venues do. A group of roughly a dozen stagehands picketed along the rainbow sidewalk in front of the building, with signs draped over their bodies that read “NO HEALTH CARE NO RETIREMENT NO FUTURE.” Monday to Friday last week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., they stood, intercepted every so often by curious pedestrians and very often by honks of supportive drivers.
I noticed them as I walked home in their last hour of picketing in the late Friday afternoon sun. They stood in small circles, chatting with an energy that did not match the fatigue they said they felt standing there all day.
On March 11, 2020, frustrated by the lack of health benefits, retirement benefits, overtime, hourly wage system and overall substandard conditions and support, stagehands at College Street Music Hall joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 74. For the last nine months, the union has been in a stalled negotiation with College Street Music Hall management, which continues to refuse to negotiate a contract that would allow its employees to access benefits from the union. The pandemic exacerbated the risks of no health insurance in particular, and has left stagehands almost entirely without work.
Multiple members of IATSE Local 74 –– the southern Connecticut division of a labor union that represents, trains, employs and protects performance venue employees –– emphasized that they mainly hoped to “get the word out” and gain public support through the picket. According to Gardner Friscia, IATSE Local 74 president, they will return to picket in a few weeks, and keep doing so until the College Street stagehands get their contract.
College Street Music Hall opened up in 2015, 13 years after the closure of the same facility that once operated as the Palace Theater under different management. College Street Music Hall has had four different production managers during its time, and several picketers say that conditions at the venue have gradually worsened throughout the years. Taylor,* one of 21 College Street Music Hall stagehands –– pointed to the third production manager’s tenure from 2018 to 2019 as a pivotal period for the stagehands’ frustration. The issues with the third manager have carried over under the successor, Keith Mahler.
“[The third production manager] was a poor leader, which led to a lot of animosity and distrust, to put it mildly,” said Taylor. “The crew was continually understaffed and overworked. They’d be unloading a 26-foot box truck on the street that’s full of lighting and sound and there would be only five guys to unload the truck, bring it in the building, set up the show, do the show, break it back down and get it back on the road.”
Because this physical load is placed on a few individuals, the stagehands put their bodies at risk, some injuring themselves in the process. At the back of College Street Music Hall, a door opens onto a parking lot that could conveniently allow stagehands to unload trucks into the building with minimal distance. However, because Yale –– the owner of the parking lot –– has denied trucks access to the lot, stagehands must carry all their loads from the street onto a sidewalk filled with holes and cracks, as well as up ramps. Unloading thus takes up more time and adds more risk.
Stagehands’ work is both intense and prolonged beyond the norms of the job –– not only for those who move set pieces, but also for those who work with lighting, sound, hair, makeup and special effects. The small staff can work as many as 18 hours on a single day, while being paid the same flat sum. This payment varies only based on the positions held by different stagehands, and not by hours clocked.
“The [Department of Labor] has told me on more than one occasion that they had to perform wage investigations due to Mr. Mahler not paying his unemployment insurance,” wrote Morgan, another College Street stagehand, in an email to the News. “To the best of my knowledge he’s avoided paying any sort of insurance towards accidental job related injuries. We’ve never been offered any recompense for our work clothes although there is a required dress code. I’ve even seen men turned down for parking vouchers when I had to come back on a Saturday night when the event was originally a benefit/courtesy.”
College Street Music Hall is able to maintain low wages in part because of its relatively young staff. While some experienced staff members are fixtures at the venue, some are less experienced stagehands who have fewer skills and who aren’t familiar with wage standards. They therefore are less likely to question the variability in their wages, a system that isn’t common in Connecticut according to Taylor. This structure contrasts with the Shubert across the street, as it generally keeps a mostly constant set of employees, who have health benefits and pension credits through IATSE.
“It’s like summer camp,” said Taylor, referencing the young and less experienced stagehands. “It’s like, ‘Can we get away with paying these guys with pizza?’ and if they could, they would.”
On top of overtime and hourly wages, stagehands are prioritizing health insurance, which Morgan says is not offered at all at College Street Music Hall. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability that uninsured stagehands face, even when given respite from the physical intensity of their work in a normal year (or any work at all, for that matter). One of the stagehands who has no health insurance is also immunocompromised.
The College Street Music Hall stagehands and supporting union members are in tense talks with Mahler, who picketers say holds almost all decision-making power in the contract negotiations. Several say he has remained stalwart about his position. One picketer, leaning casually against the green molding of College Street Cycles, nonchalantly explained to me that Mahler is resistant simply because he is “greedy.”
The pandemic shutdowns have both complicated contract negotiations with Mahler and made the need for a new contract more dire. “The pandemic took the wind out of the sails for sure,” said Taylor. “But any way you slice it, Mr. Mahler was going to fight tooth and nail regardless, pandemic or not. We got bombarded with anti-union union busting propaganda pretty much every week for the voting period or up until the voting period when we were allowed to vote. He was prepared to fight us on this.” Mahler could not be reached for comment.
The New Haven Center for Performing Arts, the governing body for the music hall run by Mahler, recently acquired the Westville Music Bowl, a former tennis stadium situated right next to the Yale Bowl. The new venue is scheduled to host rock band Gov’t Mule at the end of April. The last time that College Street Music Hall hosted Gov’t Mule, stagehands worked from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. The pay for their work, even on days like that one, varies from $75 to $350 for the entire day.
The pandemic has begun to wane and a reopening is approaching, but the negotiations are, in the words of Friscia, “nowhere near an agreement that is mutually beneficial” to management and the stagehands. Yet, the stagehands and supporting IATSE picketers are hopeful, in part because they believe their asks are quite basic, and in part because of their faith in the public if they keep picketing.
One union member, Brad Bates, pointed out that once more people are aware of this issue, they might avoid spending money on future events at College Street Music Hall and help push ahead negotiations. Bates, who has worked in the industry for 30 years, kindly re-emphasized that he “wants the people protected” between sentences. He stuck around an extra 20 minutes after the eight-hour day to talk to me as the rest signed out, sanitized their signs and headed home.
“We want the people here protected just like the people across the street, just like the people down at Woolsey Hall, the Palace Theater in Waterbury, The Bushnell up in Hartford,” said Bates in between car horn blasts. “We’re not working right now during a pandemic, so we’ve got nothing to do. So we want to inform people that Local 74 doesn’t stand for it. And that’s it. … You can see a show, enjoy a show all you want. But do you want to frequent a place that doesn’t support its employees?”
*Names of College Street Music Hall employees have been changed to protect their jobs.
Nicole Dirks | firstname.lastname@example.org