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Union wants to work First Night activities
Saturday, December 17, 2011

A dispute between the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the stagehands union may lead to union leafleting, sign-carrying and a march at First Night, the city's big New Year's Eve party.

Local 3 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees is angry that the trust has excluded the union from working at outdoor event venues, such as the Dollar Bank Stage on Liberty Avenue and the Highmark Stage on Penn Avenue.

Union officials said they're willing to provide stagehands for the event or to represent those hired through the trust's out-of-town events company. If an agreement isn't reached by Dec. 31, they said, they'll dispatch members to carry signs and pass out literature to raise public awareness of the dispute.

"We don't want to do any of that. We want to work it out," Robert J. Brown, union business agent, said.

In a letter to city Councilman Bill Peduto, the union also raised the possibility of a march along Penn Avenue and a gathering of members at First Night venues.

J. Kevin McMahon, trust president and CEO, called the disagreement unfortunate but said his organization is doing what's best for First Night and other big events that are free, or largely free, to the public.

Mr. McMahon said the trust spends about $350,000 on First Night, a sum raised through private donations. The event was founded in the mid-1990s and used nonunion stagehands long before the trust took it over in 2003, he said, noting he's concerned about the long-term financial effects of changing that arrangement now.

Perhaps, he added, union demands regarding jurisdiction for First Night will spill over into other events that other organizations operate with nonunion labor. He noted that the stagehands already are requesting jurisdiction for Three Rivers Arts Festival, a summer event that the trust took over about three years ago.

"Obviously, we respect them. They're skilled members of the trust family," Mr. McMahon said of the stagehands.

Local 3, which represents about 400 stagehands in Pittsburgh and New Castle, already provides workers for the trust's indoor venues, such as the Benedum Center and Byham Theater. The union provides workers for those venues year-round, including First Night.

However, the contract doesn't cover First Night's outdoor venues; the trust uses a vendor to supply labor for those.

Mr. McMahon said total compensation for nonunion stagehands will be about $20.50 per hour.

While union compensation can be higher, the union officials said, they offered to do the work at the vendor's rate. However, they said the trust wouldn't budge, leading them to believe that expanding union jurisdiction, not financial outlay, is the trust's main concern.

Local 3 President Robert L. Olinger said the trust at one point suggested a willingness to give the union First Night jurisdiction if it made compromises in other areas, such as ending mandatory eight-hour shifts for stagehands who begin work at indoor venues before noon each day. However, he said that conversation has gone nowhere.

After the trust took over First Night, union officials said, they thought the organization was recruiting volunteers to work at event venues. After learning that wasn't the case, they said, they began trying a couple of years to arrange at least limited jurisdiction for the union.

The city's elected officials have been unable to break the ice.

A couple of weeks ago, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl brought the parties in for a meeting that yielded no progress, the union officials said.

Mr. Peduto sent a First Night organizer a letter expressing his concern. "Part of Pittsburgh's great history is a support for organized labor and the working people of Pittsburgh," Mr. Peduto said, asserting that the union stagehands "should be included in this great regional event."

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

First published on December 17, 2011 at 12:00 am
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