Blazers must recognize stagehands union

Outside Moda Center April 3, that’s a Blazers jersey on Scabby the Rat. Stagehands in IATSE Local 28 have been protesting their replacement by nonunion labor, and getting honks and thumbs up from passersby, and even from Trail Blazers players themselves as they arrive to play. The jersey was made by Local 28 member Nikki Paulson, an unemployed wardrobe designer.

By Don McIntosh

PORTLAND, Ore.—IATSE Local 28 members hope an April 1 union vote will get them back to work at Portland Trail Blazers and Portland Winterhawks home games. For decades, the home games have been union productions. At Moda Center and Memorial Coliseum, members of IATSE Local 28 run score boards and time clocks, spotlights, sound systems, and other technical equipment.

But the stagehand local’s contract with Rip City Management—the Rose Quarter’s manager since 2014—didn’t require the company to use union labor on competitive sporting events, just concerts and events, which require much bigger crews to load in and take down sets. Under the contract, Rip City could request workers from the union hiring hall for sporting events—and it routinely did—but it didn’t have to.

When the pandemic hit, stagehands plummeted to almost total unemployment. The return of live sports late last year—even without live fans—looked like it would put at least some back to work. But on Nov. 30, 2020, Rip City notified Local 28 it wouldn’t need union stagehands at the games: Their duties would be performed by Rip City production managers and/or subcontractors instead.

“It was so shocking,” says Local 28 Business Agent Rose Etta Venetucci. “These guys have not worked since March 11, 2020. They see the Blazers coming back, are excited about going back to work, and are told, ‘We don’t need you.’”

Venetucci says she has no idea why the sporting exclusion is in the contract; it was there when she got active in the union, and it was never a problem until the pandemic because Rip City used Local 28 members for sporting events anyway, and paid them under the terms of the union contract. Now, bargaining over a new union agreement to replace the one that expired Jan. 15, the union is trying to get the exclusion removed.

But with legal support from IATSE’s international, Local 28 also pursued a separate strategy: On Dec. 11—the day the Blazers resumed games at Moda Center—the union asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election to see if the workers Rip City employed the previous year want to be represented by the union. Lawyers for Rip City objected, arguing that the employees are already union represented and that the union was just trying to expand the scope of work defined by its collective bargaining agreement, not adding unrepresented employees to an existing unit.

But the NLRB sided with the union, and held an election among all those who’d done the sports work in the previous year. In ballots counted April 1, the vote for the union was 53 to zero.

Rip City could appeal, but hadn’t done so as of press time.

“We’re hoping they’ll come to the table and bargain,” Venetucci said.

Venetucci acknowledges it’s been quite an effort for what amounts to just five jobs, but says fighting for jobs is the morally correct thing.

“Even if it was one person, we’d fight,” Venetucci said.

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