As theater lovers lined up around the block last weekend to buy tickets to The Lion King, a musical extravaganza coming to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts this April, they may not have realized that the law of the jungle extends to the ticket counter.
Since last February, the 120 or so people who work in the DCPA box office, which sells tickets for the Denver Center Theatre Company, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Opera Colorado, Colorado Ballet, touring Broadway shows and other events, have been trying to organize a union. Most of them make just over $9 an hour, are eligible for health insurance benefits only after working 1,000 hours, and receive just five days of vacation and sick leave per year.
Around the country, many other performing-arts-center box offices are unionized. In cities that are similar in size to Denver, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis, box-office employees make from $11 to $15 per hour and have full benefits.
The Denver groups say they're tired of being treated like second-class citizens by the DCPA, and they want the same rights and benefits as other employees. "It's like the scene in Dr. Zhivago where the serfs are watching the aristocrats dance," says Bill Harris, one of the employees involved in the union-organizing effort. "People spend more money on Lion King tickets than we make in a day. We have a lot of good people here. But most of us can't live on what we make."
In response, the DCPA management has hired Denver attorney Martin Semple of the Semple, Miller and Mooney law firm to battle its employees in hearings before the National Labor Relations Board. The organization is following a common strategy used by private-sector employers; they resist union drives by filing constant appeals with the NLRB in the hope that union supporters will become discouraged and give up.
The first appeal was filed in March, immediately after a majority of the box-office employees requested a vote to determine if they would affiliate with the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, Local 7, which already represents stagehands and technical staff at the DCPA. (Many other DCPA employees are unionized, including the actors at the Denver Center Theatre Company and the musicians in the symphony.)
The DCPA challenged the vote, saying many of the part-time employees and "show supervisors" -- who manage ticket sales the day of an event -- shouldn't have been eligible to vote. In April, the NLRB rejected that claim and ordered an election. In May, a vote was held, but the DCPA immediately appealed the NLRB ruling -- again claiming that many of the employees shouldn't have been eligible, especially show supervisors, who the DCPA insisted are management.
That appeal is still waiting to be heard, but activists like Harris are confident that the union won the election. They say the DCPA's contention that show supervisors are management and shouldn't be allowed to vote is wrong. "They have no hiring or firing authority, which is how management is legally defined," says Harris, adding that the show supervisors have some of the most stressful jobs in the ticket office and have been among the union's biggest supporters.
Those who work at the DCPA say they like their jobs and don't want to leave, and so far, the box-office employees have resisted doing anything that would disrupt the DCPA.
"We don't want to picket, and we don't want to do anything to damage theater in Denver," says Ed Mickens, who has worked in the box office for two years. "We love the theater. We know the shows; we're the front line. There's nobody in the box office who doesn't like dealing with the public."
But if the DCPA, which receives millions of dollars in taxpayer support every year, continues to challenge the organizing drive, it could hinder an effort to get a bond issue passed. The City of Denver owns the Denver Performing Arts Complex, and over the years, taxpayers have approved millions of dollars in bond issues to build or renovate many of the theaters within the complex. Recently, DCPA officials asked Denver for permission to go to voters again with a request for $65 million to renovate and expand the Auditorium Theatre.
"I think there are a number of councilmembers, including myself, who have questions about any attempts to thwart the right of people to form unions," says Denver City Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie. "I think that any entity that takes taxpayer money should be a model employer and obey the law."
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Lester Ward, president of the DCPA, declined to comment on the situation. "This is a personnel matter, and as a matter of policy, we do not comment publicly on personnel matters," he says.
According to Harris and Mickens, box-office employees started talking about unionizing in January after several employees worked through their lunch hours on a busy Sunday and were then told they wouldn't be paid for the time. They insist such indignities are commonplace and exemplify their low-level status at the DCPA.
"They call it theater for a world-class city, but the gatekeepers are a bunch of feudal lords who run this place like a country club," Harris says. "It's hard when you're living off ramen noodles and watching these guys drive up in chauffeured limos."