A year after unionizing, ushers at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre finally have a contract with management — meaning a $20 minimum hourly wage, bereavement pay, time and a half for working holidays, a 24-hour notice requirement for canceling a shift, a grievance process, and a stipend for uniforms. On April 29, 2024, the Pantages Ushers Union voted in favor of ratifying their new labor contract. 

This is the first union of ushers to join International Alliance Of Theatrical Stage Employees, Motion Picture Technicians, Artists And Allied Crafts (IATSE) Local B-192, a union that also represents the workers at the University Studios City Walk complex. A provisional pact was reached in March, but the official vote was delayed. In the end, the ushers accepted the three-year contract, making Pantages one of only a few theaters whose ushers are in a union. The ushers were only one of a few departments at Pantages that weren’t unionized.

Brendan Mallory, usher and shop steward with the union, said that there was interest in unionizing the theater for at least a decade due to ushers feeling mistreated and disrespected by management on a regular basis. Then in 2019, there was an abrupt change to the pay rate for one of the usher positions, sparking interest in pursuing a union. The union organizers did not have a map to this destination; improvisation and hard work led the way.

Protestors hold signs in support of the union. (Nicole Miller / LA Public Press)

“That’s when the whispers and grumbling started,” Mallory said. “But it became clear that we didn’t quite have the will to do a full union push.” Unionizing efforts stalled when the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down the Pantages.

When the theater reopened in the fall of 2021, Pantages management changed, but ushers said the problems remained. The ushers said their wages were poor both before and after the shutdown. Prior to the union contract, most were paid the Los Angeles minimum wage of $16.78 per hour, while some were paid up to $18 per hour. The theater also employed ushers on a per production basis, meaning they would be hired for a month or so at a time for a production’s run, and then fired at the end of a production’s run. This could mean weeks without work and pay. No one knew if they would be asked to return, leading to a sense of instability among the staff. 

Despite these issues, Mallory said many ushers resisted quitting LA’s largest theater for Broadway shows. Mallory said, “It’s a cool theater, and we like watching shows, and we really get along with and care for our co-workers.”

The big push to unionize began when Jensen Price, a former usher who still organizes with the union, approached Mallory at work.

“I [couldn’t] deal with this anymore. I cold-called a bunch of unions. I don’t even know if I called the right ones,” Price said. 

At first, organizers unsuccessfully sought advice from another of the few ushers’ unions. “One of the Chicago locations is unionized, but we could never find any information about it,” said Kat Frick, usher and shop steward. 

The organizing ushers started outreach with locals but didn’t even hear back a rejection. The only local union to respond was IATSE B-192. “This is the first time IATSE B-192 is representing anyone outside of Universal Studios [Theme Park],” said Price.

For Nicole Miller, president of IATSE B-192, representing Pantages is exciting new territory. “Up until we organized the Pantages ushers, we only had one employer that we bargained with, and now we’re branching out,” she said. “It’s a step in a direction we’ve been taking as a local, and also the IATSE overall, in growing and strengthening the union.” Miller looks forward to working with other trade unions associated with the Pantages Theatre, which she said were “very supportive,” as well as the Pantages management. “We hope that it’s the beginning of a positive relationship with the Pantages and the Nederlander organization,” she sad.

In fall 2022, organizers began collecting union card signatures. The effort trickled at first, but flowed when a well-liked supervisor was fired. A sense of community fueled the drive. 

“Obviously there’s a little self-interest,” said Mallory. “But watching their friends get fired for stupid reasons was a big motivator for a lot of people; not just their own bank account, but hearing how much some of their co-workers were struggling, was a big motivator for people.”

Continuous grievances with management provided opportunities to discuss the benefits of unionizing. “It was never something we had to force it on people,” Price said. The unionizing group collected the signatures they needed in six months, and the Pantages ushers voted to become a union in April 2023.

Contract negotiation took another year. Frick said Pantages management’s attitude at the bargaining table was hostile at first, but softened over time.

“The more they would try to belittle us, the more we all just sat there with the same respect we give them at our job,” Frick said. “I think they figured out it wasn’t going to work.” 

When the minimum wage in California was raised to $16, the ushers’ pay was raised to the minimum on the dot, differing from the previously established practice, where ushers’ wages were about $1 above the minimum wage. Certain staff members interpreted this as retaliation.

The wage battle was fierce. In June 2023, staff started wearing shirt buttons that said “Stop Paying Poverty Wages at Pantages Theatre.” Still, the stalemate continued for months. On a rainy night in December, the union picketed to escalate pressure on management. There were talks of a strike, but the economic burden was too great. As bargaining went into 2024, the company’s stonewalling wore organizers down.

Although negotiation ended in mid-March, the vote wasn’t held for six more weeks, while lawyers and staff reviewed the final version of the contract. On April 29, 2024, the Pantages ushers ratified the contract.

The union’s demand was $23 per hour, but they agreed to $20 in negotiation. They also had to concede sick pay, a bitter loss. 

“Knowing how much we had to give up and compromise on left a bitter taste in my mouth,” Mallory said.

Pantages management could not be reached for comment.

The union will negotiate a new contract in three years, when they hope to bargain with renewed vigor. 

The Pantages Ushers Union advises those who want to form new unions to prepare for a challenging yet rewarding process. 

“It’s so hard to keep the momentum going when it might take a year or longer,” Frick said. Allotting a certain number of hours a day for union work is one way they found balance, as well as in sharing the workload with others. 

Price points to the importance of solid relationships with co-workers, as well as seeking support from another union. Price said, “It is possible, it’s so very possible, but you need the help of your co-workers, and the help of a local union.”

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