Thirty-six hours at Bonnaroo, the massive Tennessee music festival, sounds like a great way to spend a June weekend. Unless you’re working backstage without breaks, fighting exhaustion, because one of your colleagues called in sick and there’s nobody else to fill in -- like Katherine Walding did last summer.
“To say that I was potentially a danger to my crew is an understatement,” says Walding, a stagehand with a company called Crew One, which staffs rock concerts and festivals across the South. “That’s what you do if you want to get paid. It’s all you can do.”
At $10 an hour with no benefits, it hardly seems worth the effort. Especially when you’re called in just for a four-hour shift, which is more common than the marathon Walding pulled at Bonnaroo last year. Walding said she doesn’t feel safe, with low-paid, sometimes inexperienced people working on vertiginous, electrified sets.
The problem is, Walding doesn’t actually work for Crew One. AC Entertainment, Bonnaroo's producer, pays the staffing agency to work its sets. In turn, the company brings on independent contractors, who aren’t entitled to many of the protections employees enjoy, such as workers compensation and health insurance. They’re basically on their own.
It’s a familiar story in the modern economy, where layers of corporate insulation separate workers from the entity that actually calls the shots. In the entertainment industry, the main union representing backstage labor — the 122,000-strong International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — worries the model might expand further, driving down salaries and cutting the number of hours available for their members.
“The problem with Crew One, is that for them, it’s better to spread the work among a much broader pool of workers than to concentrate it among a smaller group,” says Dan Di Tolla, an IATSE organizer in Atlanta. “We want to keep the pool of workers commensurate to the amount of work there is.”
AC Entertainment isn't IATSE's main target, however. Rather, the union is taking on a higher profile client of Crew One's: Live Nation, the nation's biggest concert promoter. In more than a dozen cities, Live Nation employs stagehands directly through union contracts, which set salaries at least twice as high as what Crew One pays. But in a handful of places — including Atlanta, where Walding lives — Live Nation promotes at venues that use staffing agencies like Crew One. (Crew One and Live Nation declined requests for comment.)
This week, the union is going to start making some noise on the issue with the ultimate customer -- concertgoers. It’s planning a Web site and social media campaign targeting ticketholders, and at upcoming shows for Maroon 5 and Billy Joel, it plans to hand out flyers juxtaposing the profits Live Nation makes off its audience with the low wages that Crew One’s workers receive for putting on the show.
“The way these labor contractors do business is something that they couldn’t possibly do if concert promoters were not complicit," Di Tolla says. That’s consistent with how the National Labor Relations Board has been looking at contracting lately: The company ordering up the work, whether Live Nation or a franchisor like McDonald's, should be responsible for the conditions of the people who carry it out, the federal agency’s general counsel has said.
As part of its pitch to the public, the union claims that a show run by independent contractors isn’t as safe because it’s difficult to ensure those workers have the necessary skills or experience; independent contractors aren’t allowed to receive training on the job. Katherine Walding, for example, had lots of experience building sets when she got hired at Crew One — her last job was at a haunted house in Atlanta. But when she showed up to her first gig, an Arcade Fire concert, they put her on the lighting team instead.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Walding recalls. “I don’t do lights. I’m a carpenter.”
Fortunately, a sympathetic colleague showed her the ropes — literally — and she eventually got to be pretty good at laying cable and moving lights. But she’s disturbed that what happened to her seems more the norm than the exception at Crew One. “Every time I show up to a work site,” she says, “you have all these new kids coming in and don’t know anything.”
IATSE’s line of argument parallels a strong push for higher safety standards in the live show industry, which weathered a series of tragic accidents over the past decade. Event planners say the independent contractor model is falling out of favor because it’s more difficult to ensure that workers are properly certified and insured for the jobs they’re doing. “I think this is absolutely something that the industry is coming to terms with, slowly,” says Steve Lemon, a show manager in Los Angeles who serves as a director of the Event Safety Alliance. “But there are still those wildcats out there.”
The funny thing is, IATSE shouldn’t have to be protesting at all. Staff at Crew One have already voted to join the union. But so far, the company has managed to avoid signing a contract.
How did that happen? In order to hold an election, IATSE had to argue that Crew One’s workers are actually employees, since the company tells them exactly what to do when, and for how much (evidence provided in court also showed that out of the 464 workers Crew One used in 2013, only 47 were paid more than $10,000 over the course of the whole year). Late last year, the NLRB agreed and ordered a vote, which the union won.
But it’s really hard to force an employer to treat its employees like employees if it doesn’t want to. Crew One has refused to bargain with the union, and last week it appealed the NLRB’s final decision to the 11th Circuit Court, which could take months or years to resolve.
From Crew One’s perspective, avoiding a union might make sense. The way the live entertainment industry is structured, IATSE effectively works as its own staffing agency, supplying workers who become the employees of the venues covered by its contract. If Crew One’s workers were unionized, the company itself would be redundant (in fact, one of the company’s legal arguments is that the union shouldn’t be able to represent its employees, since it’s also a competitor).
Take it from Jahn “Boxer” Hardison, who owns a non-union event staffing company based in Los Angeles called Bigger Hammer Production Services. He hires all his workers as employees -- “If you tell an employee what to do and when to be there, they’re an employee,” he says matter-of-factly -- and starts them at $19 an hour, plus benefits. (Some of them prefer that to working for the stagehands union, he says, which has a strict seniority system for doling out jobs.) Organizing Crew One, Hardison thinks, could just be a way of driving out the competition.
“[IATSE] would love to organize them and put them out of business,” Hardison says. “I would be shocked if that’s not their goal.”
Direct union jobs seem like a huge step up for Walding, who’s been trying to get her membership card so she can work at venues in Atlanta that pay much better. But until that happens, she’ll keep picking up Crew One gigs — her husband lost his job at Sprint a few weeks ago, making her the only breadwinner for them and their 11-year-old daughter.
“And I’m sitting here saying, 'we need this,'” she says. “We can’t do our jobs to the best of our ability.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that Live Nation produces Bonnaroo. It does not.