Letter to the editor: The stage is being set for a worker-centered arts scene

Let it shine! The Englert’s refurbished marquee is lit for the first time in a social-distanced ceremony on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. — Addison Arp / Little Village

By Jennifer Sherer
President, Iowa City Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO

For music fans and literature lovers flocking to Iowa City’s Englert Theatre during this year’s Mission Creek Festival, there’s a new reason to celebrate the historic, beloved Englert’s role in sustaining a vibrant, community-supported music and performance scene. Englert production technicians and stagehands who work behind the scenes to bring live shows to Iowa audiences are now unionized.

Like many groups of nonprofit and arts workers across the country, Englert employees emerged from a destabilizing pandemic seeking more say in their working conditions and in the theater’s future. Last November, Englert production techs and stagehands voted unanimously to become part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 690, joining other local unionized stagehands who’ve long helped make Hancher productions a success as well as staffing entertainment events the new Xtream Arena in Coralville. IATSE membership will provide a pathway to ensuring high-quality careers for entertainment professionals, a positive step both for the Englert and for our broader local arts community.

Now in talks with theater management to set terms for a first contract, Englert techs and stagehands are focused on fair wages to keep pace with industry standards, catch up with the cost of living, and help retain local skill and experience. They’re also seeking equitable working conditions by setting consistent minimum standards for breaks and work hours to compensate for the physical demands and highly irregular schedules associated with tech and stagehand jobs.

Strong community support has built the Englert into the crown jewel of Iowa City’s rich arts and performance community. Now tech and stagehand unionization provides the Englert with a new opportunity to serve as a model nonprofit employer and establish a productive bargaining relationship with staff, in keeping with its mission to “Inspire and activate positive community growth through the arts.”

Newly unionized Englert staff can expect strong community support from thousands of eastern Iowa union members, music-lovers, theater patrons, and donors invested in the Englert’s future success. We will all be watching closely for a positive outcome to first contract negotiations.

If you’re heading to the Englert for an upcoming performance, make sure to greet hard-working Englert staff. While downtown, stop by the Clinton Street Starbucks to let baristas there — who just last week filed for their union election — know they too have our community’s support. And stand by to join in celebrating strong new contracts for Englert and Starbucks workers leading the way to raising standards for good jobs in the heart of Iowa City’s downtown.