Interview with Union President Stephen Price
I’m outside of the Myrtle street entrance to Merrill Auditorium, in the City Hall building of Portland, Maine. Men and women in hoodie sweatshirts, jackets, hats, and gloves are gathered around, some pressed against the steel-grate barriers that form a walkway towards the door. Insignia on the clothing spell IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
The union, IA, for short, represents over 150,000 members in the United States and Canada. They’ve been in the news recently. 13 local branches in the Hollywood area went on strike this year to protest unreasonable working conditions: 12+ hour workdays, already short and limited meal breaks infringed upon, and meager pay with few benefits. The set crew, lighting, camera, craft services, and tech production jobs, for example, are indispensable to any television, film, or live production, but often go unrecognized and under-rewarded.
The scene outside Merrill Auditorium, Portland ME. November 18, 2021
Now, here on the east coast, IATSE Local 114 (representing the Portland area) is staging a picket of their own, outside tonight’s concert at the city-owned venue. Some union members and supporters hold handmade signs: Union or Nothing; We Deserve A Contract; Local 114: Locked Out After 100 Years. Others pass out informational flyers to event attendees, many of whom are curious to learn more about the meaning behind this unusual welcome.
The picketers are making it clear to concert goers: our quarrel is not with you nor with the artist performing tonight. An enormous projection on a nearby wall makes plain their message to the city: STOP UNION BUSTING. Amidst the demonstration, to the sound of calls-and-responses shouted across the crowd, I had the chance to exchange a few words with Stephen Price, the President of IATSE Local 114.
[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity]
Noise Mag: Stephen, what’s going on here tonight?
Stephen Price: We are doing an informational picket, to inform the public and the city of Portland, that we would like a contract with them. We’ve had a contract, an agreement at least, for years, and during Covid it expired. The city has chosen not to extend it or renew it.
NM: Do you see this as part of a broader labor movement in the country right now?
SP: It’s a good time for unions to be recruiting new members. Coming out of Covid with the labor shortages, and the competition for wages, we definitely think it’s a good time. The other fortuitous thing that happened here is that the city decided to lock us out tonight for a show that normally we’d be working.
NM: Normally you guys would be backstage tonight.
SP: We’d be back stage working the show.
[Crowd chants: What’s disgusting? Union Busting!]
NM: What are you hoping will come out of this event tonight?
[Crowd chants: What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!]
SP: I think the city are going to be a whole lot more willing to work with us. And we have an interim city manager, who really needed some education as well. Thankfully, a lot of that happened today.
NM: So it’s an educational event, in a lot of ways?
SP: It is, in a lot of ways, people don’t know what we do. People come to concerts, and they’re there, and they see the music, they see the artist, and they enjoy everything about it, but have no idea what comes out of the trucks every day, and who does that work.
NM: So how many would be in a crew, normally, for a show like this?
SP: For a small show like this, this might have 10–20 hands depending if there’s video, and the extent of the lighting.
NM: That’s all you guys, the A/V, the roadies, the lights?
SP: It is. That’s what we do. In a theater show, we had RENT here a couple weeks ago, that was 40 local stagehands, plus whatever the show itself brings. We had a comedian at our other building, the Cross Insurance Arena, they had 70 hands for that show.
NM: Are you still under contract over there?
SP: We are. We negotiated a contract during Covid over there. Took us, 14 months. [Laughs] We weren’t working, we had no leverage because we weren’t working, but yeah it took a long time to get that. We had to give up some stuff, but at least we have an agreement going forward there.
NM: And are you asking for anything in particular in the new contracts? You know, benefits, wages?
SP: We haven’t really gotten to that point yet, we just want to get back to the table. Their proposal here was to put our work out for bid, with competing production companies, which there aren’t too many of in Maine — but the one that’s working tonight is one.
NM: I understand there’s some controversy about the company that’s working tonight, is that anything you’ve heard about?
SP: The only controversy I know of is that the — I don’t know if he’s the head of that company — was accused of some domestic abuse crimes years ago. He was putting on concerts on our waterfront here, and the city severed ties with him in that regard. But his company is back in here doing shows now, so….
NM: Can you tell me about your role with the union?
SP: I am a theater lover from my childhood, my dad was involved in community theater, and so I’ve always been that guy that did theater productions. I’m a teacher, a regular middle school teacher. I teach in Cape Elizabeth.
NM: Theater teacher?
SP: Math and Science, but I do theater on the side. And I help out with the high school productions as well. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. Somebody just asked me hey, have you ever heard of the stagehands? I said no…. They said, well, do you want to work? So, I started working, I became a rigger, and over time… I think I’ve been on the executive board of Local 114 here for about 10 years, first as a Secretary, and now as President.
NM: Well, congratulations. It’s great to see all you guys out here. Good luck.