When Meg L. Burkardt and Jared Earley took over the Penn Hills Cinema in January, the shopping-center movie house had two projectionists. Now its owners say it has four -- a move the projectionists union argues is designed to cut workers' hours, and to cut the union out of the theater's operations.
The number of projectionists at Penn Hills is a key aspect of a labor-management dispute that the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 627 has taken to the National Labor Relations Board. Burkardt, a co-owner of the Oaks Cinema in Oakmont, and Oaks manager Earley took over the four-screen Penn Hills after the previous owners were locked out for nonpayment of bills. All three Penn Hills employees were retained at their prior wages, including two part-time union projectionists. But Burkardt refused to negotiate a union contract with vacation and health-care benefits, and IATSE filed a complaint with the NLRB seeking a vote on whether to organize. On April 18, Burkardt, Earley and their attorney, Brian Balonick, convened at NLRB regional offices Downtown at a hearing with IATSE business agent Pat Gianella, attorney Ernest B. Orsatti and Penn Hills projectionist Ty Patrick.
Burkardt, herself an attorney, says she and Earley refused to talk contract because they wanted six months to determine whether the theater was financially viable before committing to a labor deal. Gianella, who contends the theater is profitable, says Burkardt first promised the projectionists she wouldn't cut their hours -- a promise Burkardt denies making -- and then slashed their hours drastically.
One issue is whether jurisdiction for the complaints rests with the NLRB or state labor officials; another is who is eligible to vote to unionize. The April 18 hearing included a lengthy questioning of Earley by Orsatti as to which employees were working as projectionists at what time at Penn Hills in recent months. Gianella contends management is padding the rolls so that Oaks projectionists can participate in the vote. "All of a sudden they got all these projectionists," says Gianella.
Burkardt says she and Earley simply hoped to save money by using a group of projectionists (including Earley himself, plus a trainee) at both its theaters; projectionists' hours were cut partly because the theater is now closed one day a week for renovations. Burkardt, who operates the Oaks with Marc A. Serrao and Cynthia J. Yount, says she has "a friendly arrangement" with Penn Hills shopping-center owner The First City Company so that she and Earley won't be financially liable if the theater fails. "The whole thing is a wait-and-see proposition," she says.
Also on April 18, the union filed a charge of unfair labor practices against the theater, alleging that Burkardt cut projectionists' hours after they decided to join the union. Now that charge, along with the jurisdictional questions, must be resolved before the union vote is addressed.
IATSE's strategy has included two days of picketing at the Oaks Theater. "We want the people in the community to know what [Burkardt is] doing," says Gianella.
The union's struggle occurs against a backdrop of declining employment for union projectionists. Once, all movie projectionists were union, and state-licensed to boot. But the end of state licensing of projectionists, and the rise of multi-screen theaters and technology allowing one person to oversee several screening rooms, have taken their toll. Local 627, which as recently as 1997 had 150 projectionists in its five-county region, now represents just 45, says Gianella. He contends union projectionists are better trained. "I think we put a better product on the screen."
He also notes that IATSE never sought to unionize at the one-screen Oaks when Burkardt and her partners took it over several years ago, and doesn't object to Penn Hills using some non-union personnel. "We made every concession we can possibly make to her," says Gianella, "and she has refused to sign an agreement."