By Don McIntosh
March 11 will mark one year since COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic. As with everything else, the pandemic hit the local union movement highly unevenly. Union office workers in public employment learned to work from home. Oregon construction union members masked up, sanitized, and kept working while social distancing. Several unions even grew. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 added nearly 4,000 members amid a boom in the grocery industry—while campaigning for hazard pay and the right to workers’ compensation benefits for grocery workers who contract COVID-19. And a stay-at-home boom in home remodels boosted demand for lumber and created 100 new union jobs in Weyerhaeuser sawmills. But other union communities experienced job loss. A severe drop in air travel contributed to the layoff of roughly 450 union Machinists at Boeing in Gresham. And for several entertainment unions, the pandemic meant near-total loss of employment. For them, the coronavirus has been a struggle for survival, and a testament to union solidarity.
‘Frozen’ in place
Locally, the hardest hit union was likely 231-member IATSE Local 28, which represents theatrical riggers, stagehands and other theater professionals.
When the pandemic hit, the Disney musical Frozen was less than half-way through a two week run at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Behind locked doors, the show’s elaborate set spent the rest of the year “frozen” in place on stage. Meanwhile, at the Moda Center, IATSE riggers had just finished loading out props after a March 11 concert by the metal band Tool, for transportation to the tour’s next stop in Eugene. The concert was canceled. Local 28 members spent the next year almost entirely out of work.
But they didn’t have to face it alone. Solidarity among members and from the rest of the union movement helped them stay afloat. IATSE’s international put $2 million into a fund to make $1,000 grants for members in hardship. UFCW Local 555 paid six months of office rent for the union. And when Local 28 members faced the maddening chaos of Oregon’s unemployment insurance system, Oregon AFL-CIO workforce liaison Jon Irvine became a personal savior to many, going to the agency’s highest levels to troubleshoot their unemployment claims.
“If it wasn’t for Jon Irvine, we would have had people not eating,” says Local 28 Business Agent Rose Etta Venetucci.
To observe the one-year mark since the pandemic began, Local 28 members plan to gather at 11 a.m. Saturday March 13 for a procession around the Arlene Schnitzer theater.
It’s not clear when restrictions on large entertainment venues will be lifted, but there may be light at the end of the tunnel: An off-Broadway production of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar is scheduled to begin at the Keller August 31.
The year the music died
Nearly as devastated as IATSE Local 28 was American Federation of Musicians Local 99. After the Oregon Symphony went dark last March, its 79 union-represented musicians got eight weeks pay thanks to a federal COVID relief paycheck protection loan. And Local 99 eventually negotiated a commitment to return symphony employees to a quarter of their salary while doing some recording work (in exchange for agreeing to a de facto pay cut in the 2021-22 season through a reduction in the number of performances.)
When will there be live music again? Members are anxious to know. Oregon Symphony is expected to announce its 2021-22 season on March 8.
“A year ago our worst case scenario was a resumption of concerts by fall 2020,” said Local 99 Secretary-Treasurer Mont Chris Hubbard. “Now our worst case scenario is through end of 2021.”
To keep the wolf from the door, some members with side gigs teaching music were able to switch to online or socially distant instruction. But it was an especially tough year for trumpeters and saxophonists: Drums and strings can be played while masked, but not brass and wind, and some employers decided they were too unsafe even for recording.
The Portland Opera, at least, compensated musicians at half pay for canceled concerts.
Hubbard said the sudden closure of music venues exposed one of the weaknesses of the unemployment insurance system: It doesn’t cover self-employed workers or independent contractors. “It’s shone a light on the fact that these people are not protected,” he said.
Scrambling to meet the need
For Eryn Byram, director of Labor’s Community Services Agency (LCSA), the COVID year has been a year of seven-day work weeks. Funded by United Way of the Columbia-Willamette and by union fundraising, LCSA helps union members and their families in times of hardship. And LCSA never saw more hardship than in Year 1 of the coronavirus. LCSA more than tripled its operations in 2020. It partnered with Worksystems Inc. to hold over 60 webinars for out-of-work union members seeking unemployment and other benefits. It distributed $120,000 in one-time aid to keep union households housed. And it helped about 1,800 families with food boxes and other aid.
Byram says among the hardest hit were the hotel workers of UNITE HERE Local 8, laundry workers represented by Service Employees Local 49, and the theater and music workers of IATSE and Musicians Local 99.
Six months in, she and her staff were feeling trauma fatigue.
“You start feeling numb,” Byram said. “It affects your sleep. I remember one staff meeting, all three of us were just crying.”
But Byram was also buoyed by the support of unions, big and small, that stepped up to contribute money and volunteers. Thanks to union solidarity, when catastrophic forest fires hit in September, LCSA was able to help 150 displaced families with eight days of hotel stays and food cards, and its first-ever Presents from Partners toy distribution event in Southern Oregon.