Stagehands’ youth movement pays off with organizing win at Varsity Theater

bbb75503272695698ad09fe38448f85e_400x400After an organizing drive fueled by young activists and backed by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, workers at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown have a union.

It’s the first successful organizing campaign for IATSE Local 13 in “many years,” according to Michael Abramson, co-chair of the Twin Cities-based union’s Young Worker Committee.

The National Labor Relations Board conducted the election earlier this month. Contract negotiations with the Varsity are set to begin soon, with employees seeking higher wages, benefit contributions from their employer and better working conditions.

“There are a lot of safety risks doing this work,” Abramson, who does lighting work at the Guthrie Theater, said. “So protecting the ability for someone to speak up about things they see – to say, ‘these conditions are deplorable’ – is really critical.”

[Learn more about young worker groups and how they are energizing unions across the state on the Minnesota Young Workers Facebook page.]

To start, the new unit includes just four permanent light and sound technicians employed by the theater. But the victory gives Local 13 a toehold inside the facility, where stagehands often are hired as independent contractors, and could expand in the future.

Local 13 actually collected 35 signed cards requesting union representation during the organizing drive, which began last November. Abramson, fellow committee co-chair Robert Barnwell, Local 13 representative Matt Rice and an organizer from the international union attempted to track down every stagehand who had worked in the Varsity over the previous year.

“It took a couple months,” Abramson said. “We were finding people on Facebook, guessing at the spelling of their names, whatever we could do.”

By the time they were finished, the union had a more comprehensive roster of people who had worked at the Varsity than the theater did.

Although the unit was restricted to employees who had averaged four hours of work per week over the last three months, the outreach effort raised awareness of the union among stagehands – and could set the stage for organizing drives at other small venues across the metro.

“One guy who did (independent contractor) work at the Varsity but works predominantly at another venue, he signed the card,” Abramson remembered, “then he said, ‘So when are you guys coming over here?’”

The organizing drive is just one way Local 13’s Young Worker Committee is attempting to rebrand the union and enhance its image in the Twin Cities events and entertainment scene. The committee just wrapped up a t-shirt drive, collecting the free shirts given to stagehands by touring acts – “Fleetwood Mac Local Crew,” for example – and donating them to charity.

“We all have closets full of t-shirts we never wear,” Abramson. “So we set up collection sites around town and worked with the AFL-CIO Community Services program to make sure the shirts go to good use.

“Hopefully we’re shedding some of the images of what the union is – the crusty old guy, or the old man’s club. We’re trying to make a younger presence known.”

Abramson welcomes inquiries from workers in the industry looking to improve safety, wages, benefits and working conditions at their shops. Email him at

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