Pabst Theater Group Workers Ratify Union Contract

Workers at Pabst Theater Group (PTG) ratified their union contract recently with 94.4% of them voting ‘yes’ and they are now officially represented by Milwaukee Area Hospitality & Service Workers Organization (MASH). After a nearly year-long process, the workers’ bargaining committee have concluded negotiations with satisfactory terms of employment that properly amplify their voices. PTG is responsible for booking shows and events at venues Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater, Turner Hall, The Back Room at Colectivo, Miller High Life Theatre and The Fitzgerald.

The conversation about unionizing became serious among workers upon their return to PTG after quarantine. After over 80% of workers signed authorization cards, they officially demanded recognition from PTG in April of last year. The company refused to recognize the union, instead requiring election through the National Labor Relations Board. The vote passed with 94% in favor, and the workers officially entered negotiations with the company over the summer.

Notable for PTG workers was when Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted in support of their unionizing efforts; he met with the workers personally when he was in Racine supporting CNH Industrial workers on strike.

PTG employee Connor Erickson says that while it was a long bargaining process, it was not as long as it could’ve been. “It was a group of us consistently sitting down multiple times a week with the employer to work out our contract. We went into that experience with the focus of getting as many of us together as possible in a room with representatives from the company to advocate for ourselves and for our coworkers. We wouldn’t have had a true sense of solidarity otherwise.”

“It definitely took up a good portion of our summers,” PTG employee Kayli Humphrey said. “It was frustrating at times – obviously – but I think our determination and how much we cared about the issues really got us through.”

Everything in the contract was decided on by the workers themselves and was not imposed on them. PTG employee and organizer Justin Otto explains, “We talked to our coworkers, had meetings, put out surveys – we wrote our contract in a very literal sense. Nothing that went in there was anything that we couldn’t defend, so if the company in any case couldn’t understand what we were trying to achieve, we were able to get that across.”

PTG employee Lulu Sanchez points out that while many working at PTG are part-time, it should still be a job where folks can make a living wage. “A lot of us do have other creative endeavors, and we like working at PTG because it’s a job that allows you to be creative. But just because a job is fun doesn’t mean that you can’t make a living from it, and that was a big thing we needed them to understand.”

The contract grants PTG workers benefits such as wage increases, longevity pay, scheduling improvements, grievance procedures and progressive disciplinary procedures in order to maintain senses of both job stability and economic stability.

“We added a lot of structure,” PTG employee James Stapleton said. “Without a union contract, there’s not a lot of power or security for the workers; management is free to act unilaterally and arbitrarily. Now, the employer has very clear guidelines on how they have to operate in certain roles. It allows much more for a two-way conversation between the employer and employees.”

The workers have the following messages for workers out there.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from all this is that nothing is really off the table,” PTG employee Bayden Dassler said. “If you feel like something should be in your contract then you should bring it up. There were a ton of points where I was asking Justin questions about if we could even do certain things, and he confirmed that nothing is outside the realm of possibility as long as it’s reasonable. One example is how we do our wedding shifts; we implemented a $2 shift premium. When you’ve worked for an employer for a long time that has made decisions for you without asking, you sort of forget that you have a voice yourselves and can collectively speak up.”

“If you have an issue at your workplace, it’s likely that your coworkers also have that issue,” Sanchez said. “Talking about it can make it something that you can organize around and get a general consensus about what to do next. With unions growing in popularity, it’s a conversation happening now in multiple workplaces.”

“I was pro-union before I started working at Pabst, but it never occurred to me that it was something that I could be a part of,” Otto said. “I thought of unions as auto workers or construction workers or teachers; there’s certain industries where unions “made sense.” But I worked in the service industry where things were more precarious and had to be flexible so we couldn’t have that level of stability and structure. Realizing that that’s not necessarily the truth was a big moment for me.”

“Especially in the service industry, there’s this fictitious understanding that your role is to be fluid and to just “be a good helper”,” Erickson said. “While that sort of fluidity comes with the job, there needs to eventually be a line drawn where you can be treated like a human being and not just a helper. In any service industry job, you’re going to hit it at some point; you can only withstand so much push. Frustration is an incredibly fast-spreading motivator; when you start having conversations, you find people who either have dormant frustrations or are afraid to admit their frustrations until someone talks to them. Those conversations may be discouraged in workplaces, but transparency between your workers is the only way to truly build community.”

“We worked very hard to get here, and people don’t understand everything but they’re willing to learn,” Humphrey said. “Since our efforts went public and we ratified our contract, more people have been asking me about it and I’m glad that they’re so open-minded.”

Anyone with questions about union organizing is encouraged to contact the PTG workers at – they would love to get in touch with you.

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