Workers behind the scenes of Iowa’s biggest productions seek ‘voice, power and protection’ through unions

Alex Body mixes sound offstage for an event at Hancher Auditorium. — courtesy of Greg Wicklund

Hancher Auditorium’s relationship with the local stagehand union dates back to when the University of Iowa first created the venue.

“Hancher opened the same fall that CAMBUS started [1972],” recalled Mark Falk. “That was my freshman fall. [I thought] ‘Look at all this new stuff, that’s cool.’ As long as there’s been a Hancher, IATSE’s been involved with it.”

IATSE is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which has five locals in Iowa including Local 690 based out of Iowa City. Falk, who often works behind the scenes at Hancher and remains involved with IATSE, is the union’s former vice president. Falk stepped out of the role roughly around the time current Local 690 president Greg Wicklund assumed his own current title.

Though Wicklund’s presidency is just over a year old, he’s been involved with IATSE for about a decade. According to Wicklund, Local 690 covers “Iowa City, Coralville and anything south of North Liberty, down to the bottom of the state.”

The view from the back of the second balcony of the new Hancher Auditorium. Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Local 690 was charted in June of 1930. As Wicklund explained, Local 690 started its life as a projectionists’ union. As time went on, however, the location’s jurisdiction broadened.

“If there’s lights [or] there’s sound, we’re gonna be there,” Wicklund said. “On a national level there’s thousands of contracts; on the local level we maintain about five and, in addition to that, there’s so many single events that come in and they only need a contract for a day or a week.”

A noteworthy single event is Fox Sport’s Big Noon Kickoff, which has been hosted in Iowa City the past two years. In terms of established contracts, the most significant in the area include the Xtream Arena in Coralville, which opened in 2020, and Hancher Auditorium, which reopened in September of 2016, eight years after flooding forced the venue to close.

Last fall, Iowa City’s 110-year-old theater added its name to the list of venues whose stage hands have unionized.

“I’m so proud of those employees,” Wicklund said. “You put your job on the line with things like that. They came out and they voted.”

Ric Wilson performs at the Englert Theatre on Saturday, April 9, 2022. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

Following a unanimous vote of 13 in favor, and with support from management, the Englert Theatre’s stagehands are in the process of joining IATSE.

“We started making a concerted effort a year ago; we signed authorization cards in the summer and the union approached the theater at the end of August to let them know that we were seeking representation,” said Justin Comer, a production technician at the Englert who also delivers copies of Little Village.

One of the reasons he favored joining IATSE, Comer said, is a desire for more standardized work hours. He pointed out the hours stagehands might work on a given day can vary wildly, which Wicklund and Falk further attested to.

It’s work that typically has to be done the day of the performance, and can vary in scope depending on the performer.

For example, Comer tends to focus on sound at his job. When a touring band arrives for sound check, he needs to make multiple mixes. Speakers must be arranged to project sound toward the singer, so they can get a sense of the full balance of sound and, particularly, hear themselves. That balance will be different from what the drummer needs to hear, which is different from what the bass player needs to be hear, and all of those are different from what the audience is hearing.

By Comer’s estimation, he’s had to work on as many as eight different mixes for a performance.

“Some days we’ll work a small production and we’ll be there for two hours. Other days it’ll be a huge touring act and we’re working a 14- or 16-hour day,” Comer said. “Some weeks, those’ll be the only two shows that we work, so our pay for that week is a straight 18-hour week.”

Comer’s hope is that, by joining IATSE, he and his fellow Englert workers can have work conditions more in-line with industry standards, including a minimum wage and time-and-a-half for going over an eight hour shift.

“We have certain industry standards that we stand by in terms of minimums number of hours, fair working conditions and equitable working conditions for everyone that’s covered under union contracts,” Wicklund said. “That’s one of the principal tenets of unionism, is that workers feel safe and comfortable and happy in their jobs.”

Safety and comfort are especially important given the impact of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic on the entertainment industry. The Bureau of Economics reported that Iowa’s Gross Domestic Product fell by 3.5 percent in the first quarter of 2020, with the art and entertainment industry bearing the brunt of that fall.

While COVID-19 may not have led directly to stagehands at the Englert unionizing, Comer did muse that the pandemic caused a lot of people to reassess their situations.

Scott Wiley works “on the tubes” at Carver Hawkeye Arena to rig chain motors for a concert in 2018. — courtesy of Greg Wicklund

Meanwhile, in central Iowa, a different kind of backstage worker has also made moves to join a union. It was announced last year that the stage managers of the Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) will unionize and join the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA).

“The stage managers of Des Moines Metro Opera thank DMMO management for voluntarily recognizing our Union with AGMA,” read a statement from DMMO stage managers. “We believe this collaborative partnership will continue to flourish as we bargain our first AGMA contract.”

According to James Odom, the Midwest business representative with AGMA, “DMMO is the first shop AGMA has organized in Iowa,” and will represent both stage managers and assistant stage managers at the opera.

AGMA was founded in 1936 as an independent organization and was chartered a year later to cover grand opera, concert and recital. That same year it was granted a charter, AGMA negotiated and signed a deal with the Southern California Symphony Association, and began negotiations with the Chicago Opera Company and the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company.

In an email with Little Village, Odom went on to explain that AGMA largely represents singers, dancers and production staff (like choreographers and stage managers) while IATSE represents crew members (such as carpenters, electricians and make-up artists).

“The overlap is that both unions almost invariably have bargaining units with the same employers,” Odom said in his email, speaking on a national level. “While the members represented by each union work closely together, they are separate groups with separate priorities, but similar interests. AGMA and IATSE have a good working relationship.”

A scene from Act II of DMMO’s Porgy and Bess (2022) — photo by Jen Golay

Though not as old as the Englert, DMMO is a longstanding company in central Iowa. Based out of Indianola, the organization has been operating for more than 50 years. Over the course of its existence, the opera has brought established works to Iowa for the first time and even created new operas, such as last year’s adaptation of the Jane Smiley novel A Thousand Acres.

Just as with the contract between the Englert and the unionizing stagehands there, the contract between DMMO and its unionizing managers is still being worked out.

“Forming a union with AGMA creates a collective voice, power and protection for artists,” Odom said, speaking broadly about AGMA members. “As union workers, AGMA artists have the right to bargain over the terms and conditions of their employment, including wages, benefits, health and safety, and more, as well as the right to request and receive information from employers, including financial information. As union workers, artists have the backing of AGMA and its professional staff in enforcing their contractual guarantees and their legal rights, and when reporting incidents of harassment or discrimination.”

Back in eastern Iowa, Falk is just thrilled to see more workers unionizing.

Chuck Ping prepares to give the big wheel a test spin during the setup for Wheel of Fortune LIVE! at Hancher Auditorium. Chuck celebrates 40 years as a member of IATSE this year. — courtesy of Greg Wicklund

“I’m a real pro-union guy, have been all my life, so I’m real pleased to see workers get representation,” he said, regarding Englert workers unionizing. “I’m pleased as punch that we got that organized. We’ve got [roughly] a dozen new members in, it brings a new perspective.”

That new perspective goes two ways. Though it’s not entirely clear at this point how much the Englert members will intermingle with the other stagehands, the newly unionized workers will have access to the experience of their IATSE peers.

“We can give them more training,” said Falk, “which will only help their profession when they go back to Englert.”

This article was originally published in Little Village’s April 2023 issues.