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Fired Riviera Stagehands Allege Unfair Wages, Unsafe Working Conditions

By Josh McGhee | November 4, 2015 2:22pm | Updated on November 4, 2015 3:02pm
 Organizers said about 140 employees were affected by the firings
Organizers said about 140 employees were affected by the firings
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

CHICAGO — Legendary Chicago stage manager Jolly Roger stepped out from his customary spot behind the cameras and microphones Wednesday afternoon to protest the firing of his team of stagehands at the Riviera Theatre and to demand their jobs back.

The stagehands had not received raises in seven years, were asked to perform unsafe work and were not allowed to negotiate for health insurance, Roger alleged at the protest.

He was joined by former Gov. Pat Quinn and about 40 stagehands and union supporters at the protest Wednesday outside Jam Productions, 207 W. Goethe St., which produces shows at The Riviera and many other theaters throughout the Chicago area.

 Scabby, a large inflatable rat that unions have used during protests of businesses, made an appearance at the venue in October.
Scabby, a large inflatable rat that unions have used during protests of businesses, made an appearance at the venue in October.
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In October, Theatrical Stage Employees Union Local 2 announced the firings and said it had filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Jam Productions with the National Labor Relations Board for the "retaliatory discharge of the entire Riviera crew."

A flier circulating on social media asked music fans to boycott Jam Productions shows to demonstrate solidarity with the stagehand crew.

According to Arise Chicago, employees were fired immediately "after employees signed cards to authorize a vote to unionize." Lawyers representing the employees could not provide an exact date the cards were signed, but said organizing began over the summer.

At the protest, organized by Arise Chicago and Stagehands Local 2, Roger said, "I'm not used to talking in front of a microphone — that's because I work behind it. I do know that the majority of the people behind me ... called me up one day and said they wanted to do what I do. I'm upset that we've been stabbed in the back."

Phone calls to Jam Productions for comment were not immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.

Roger called out Jam owner Jerry Mickelson for not responding to the concerns and needs of stagehands, saying that stagehands were asked to perform tasks that would risk their health and safety, and that stagehands did not receive raises in at least seven years.

In fact, Rogers, who worked for the company since 1978, didn't receive a raise for the last 15 years, he said.

"Everybody I work with pays me 35 bucks an hour, you pay me $26," Roger said he told Mickelson, who then offered him $30 an hour. "He didn't want to catch up with the other people at that point."

About 100 people depended on the Riviera job for a portion of their income, and about 40 depended on the job as a large portion of their income, he said.

"Some of these guys are still making $14 an hour. These guys are unloading huge trucks and doing all kinds of stuff. People have to survive," Roger said.

Roger said he had asked management about providing insurance for the employees ("There are people that have kids. They need health insurance," he said at the protest) and while Mickelson told Roger that the discussion would continue later, it never happened, according to Roger.

He also alleged that after he told Mickelson that stagehands were complaining about three-hour shifts after shows, management lengthened the shift to four hours.

On Sept. 16, Roger was in a truck taking back supplies from the AC/DC show with two other employees when he got the call that he was fired along with the rest of the staff, he said.

"They said, 'We've decided to take a new direction,' and I said, 'What do you mean?'" Roger said. They then listed other employees that would be fired as well, he said.

Justin Huffman, who's worked for the company for about 15 years, said his family has been stressed about the financial insecurity, especially with the holidays approaching.

"In this industry, September, October and November are really busy. Those of us that do this kind of work know we depend on that income to get us through the slow months," said Huffman. "I'm here today because I want my job back. Being fired is humiliating, but I'm more concerned with providing for my family.

Jam Productions has been largely silent on the issue, though in an emailed statement to DNAinfo when the story of the firings first broke in October, Mickelson had just one cryptic comment.

"There are two sides to every story," he said.

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