Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tension continues between stagehands union and First Night organizers

Posted By on Tue, Dec 27, 2011 at 5:25 PM

Last week, I.A.T.S.E. Local No. 3 announced that it would "banner" the First Night celebration to protest the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's use of outside labor for the event. But the union's business agent, Robert Brown, told City Paper this morning that he's hopeful the Trust and the union can come to an agreement and avoid a protest.

"Hopefully, First Night is a wonderful event and we're not forced to take any action at all," Brown said. He declined to comment further on what he characterized as continuing talks between the 400-member union and the Cultural Trust, which runs First Night.

The union and the Trust have a relationship that goes back to the Trust's inception, in 1986. The current dispute dates to 2003, when the Trust took over First Night, the Downtown community New Year's Eve celebration encompassing events on the street and in dozens of galleries, theaters and other venues.

The Trust employs I.A.T.S.E. members throughout the year at such venues at the Byham Theater and the Benedum Center. But while union members also staff those theaters during First Night, the Trust has continued the First Night practice of hiring outside, nonunion workers to staff outdoor venues, like the mainstage located at Penn Avenue and Stanwix Street.

Last week, Trust CEO and President Kevin McMahon told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was concerned that using union stagehands would have a negative effect on First Night's finances. But according both to the paper and a blog post by an informed observer, the pay scale does not appear to be the only issue.

The Trust pays $20.50 an hour for the nonunion First Night workers, slightly less than I.A.T.S.E. workers make. The union agreed to work the event for that scale, but the dispute continues. The trust and the union have also discussed whether the union would get "jurisdiction" for other Trust-organized events, such as the mostly outdoor Three Rivers Arts Festival.

The impasse has even resulted in an early-December meeting between the two parties in the office of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

I.A.T.S.E. officials have contended that as an event that receives taxpayer funding, First Night should provide workers the prevailing wages, benefits and conditions. According to the web site of the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development, First Night received grants totaling $125,000 for this year's event.

(Correction (Added Dec. 30): The $125,000 in DCED funding for "First Night 2011," as listed on that agency's web site, was actually awarded for the December 2010 First Night (though the funding wasn't issued until 2011). This year's First Night received no government funding of any kind, says Trust CEO and President Kevin McMahon.)

The Trust also receives considerable funding from local taxpayers. Between 1995 and 2011, the Trust was awarded $9.6 million in funding from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which administers proceeds of a 1 percent sales tax. (RAD funding, which cannot be used for festivals, was not used for First Night. But among arts and culture organizations, only the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has received more overall support than the Trust.)

The Cultural Trust is one of Downtown's largest property owners, with properties including the Byham, the Benedum, the O'Reilly Theater (home of Pittsburgh Public Theater), Wood Street and SPACE galleries and numerous other small gallery and theater spaces. It is also a programmer, presenting series including PNC Broadway Across America, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, and the Pittsburgh International Children's Theater and Festival.


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