The Union effort at Englert Theater
Apr 17, 2023
IOWA CITY, IOWA – On Monday, April 10th, I talked with Justin Comer, a worker and labor organizer at the Englert Theater in Iowa City. Justin and his fellow workers voted unanimously last November to form a union and be represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 690. Negotiations with management over a first contract are ongoing. Justin told me about the issues their campaign is focused on and how members of the community can help support the workers who make the shows they enjoy happen.
Peter: Can you tell me a little bit about your particular job and the Englert Theater?
Justin: My job there is mostly audio focused. My title is a production technician. So that means that I plug in microphones, I run audio consoles, but also like lots of little odds and ends like moving curtains up and down. A big thing is loading equipment in and out of the theater. That's kind of everyone's responsibility. The Englert Theater is primarily a music venue, but they also do comedy and the occasional theatrical kind of productions.
Peter: What are the issues you face at work that you and your coworkers organized around?
Justin: This is a new thing to us and we're sort of getting acquainted with IATSE standards, industry standards around the country. Hours are a big thing. For example, something we're trying to get is a daily overtime limit. With this kind of work the hours are very inconsistent, so you may have a work call where you work two or three hours, or you may have a work call where you work sixteen hours. It just depends on how big of a production you're dealing with. With the way things are right now, if you had one of each of those calls during a pay period, you would just get paid a straight eighteen or nineteen hours at your set wage. Something we would like is for overtime pay to kick in once a shift exceeds eight hours. Wages are also a big reason that we've been pursuing this. We feel that our work has been undervalued for a long time monetarily.
Peter: Every workplace is very different. Did you face any unique challenges in your organizing?
Jusin: The Englert is a relatively small nonprofit so there's not that many people that we needed to to talk to about this, but the people who qualified to be in the bargaining unit was pretty much anyone who had worked at the theater in a production role in the past year. The past year meaning from when we started signing cards. That included some people who had worked once or twice. Because sometimes somebody tries, gets a job with us, it doesn't work out for them or whatever, we don't see them again. So that was like, "well do any of us actually know this person or how to talk to them?" For the people who we were in regular contact with, we had a pretty tight crew at that time and we're all pretty much on the same page. Everyone was pretty much on it right away. We had to file for an NLRB election because the organization did not voluntarily recognize after we signed the [Union Authorization] cards and then, that's when we had the unanimous vote in November. That was a big day for us.
Peter: How can members of the community who enjoy the Englert show their support?
Jusin: If you are somebody who attends events at the Englert or you are a member. If you're a person in a position like that, your word carries a lot of weight with the people who run the organization and the board. So if you have words of support for us and you can reach out to the people at the top, I think that they would really care about what you have to say.
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