Knights on Strike in California
Shocking video of Medieval Times strikers in Buena Park, California, run down by a car and then physically assaulted while picketing in a crosswalk had hundreds of thousands of views on social media in April.
“We began to get run over by cars,” said Jake Bowman, a Medieval Times knight-turned-union organizer. “People would get out of their cars and throw picketers to the ground. Some people cared more about getting into their two-hour, completely optional entertainment venue than workers’ lives. Sometimes you may have to yell louder to convince people to care.”
The assaults brought into public view the challenges that members of Medieval Times Performers United (MTU)—representing actors, stunt performers, and stable hands organizing with the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA)—have faced since their strike began February 11.
The large performance facility is in the heart of Orange County’s entertainment district. Bowman said the union’s tactics have focused on visibility, so that people entering the venue recognize they are crossing a picket line. Around 30 of the 45 performers are on strike. They’ve seen an increase in people requesting ticket refunds after seeing the picket line and talking with strikers.
But after the attacks, strikers moved the picket line from the crosswalk inside the parking lot to just outside the front ticket booth, both to keep strikers safe from aggressive drivers and because the company has now painted over its crosswalks. The strikers say the company’s move was intended to deny them the ability to spread the message to drivers entering the parking lot.
Teamsters Joint Council 42 has sanctioned the strike and stopped delivering food to the castle; the company has rented its own truck and non-union driver to do food pickup. As far as MTU is aware, UPS drivers have also stopped delivering.
HUMAN AND ANIMAL SAFETY
While workers are on strike over unfair labor practices, the current bargaining focuses on what workers allege are outdated and abusive animal training techniques that put their health and safety at risk; the long-term health impacts of the physicality of many performers’ work; and the cost of living in expensive Southern California.
Animal abuse, and the danger it creates for performers, is a singular feature of Medieval Times’ horse-oriented shows. During the show, knights jump between moving horses and fall to the ground. While it’s all part of the show, Bowman said the horses are abused through overtraining.
“They use a specific training style that comes from the circus where they use whips to beat the animals to elicit a specific response,” he said. The way the horses are treated directly impacts the performers. “Working with abused animals puts you at an exponentially greater risk because these animals are trained through fear of humans.”
Performers have raised the issue with Medieval Times, but the workers say the company didn’t adequately address the issue. So MTU publicly released videos of the training. In response, the trainer in the videos sued Bowman personally for defamation. Bowman believes it is an effort to silence the union, and the union has provided legal counsel that is vigorously defending his case.
Performers have also sustained severe injuries such as torn rotator cuffs, back problems, broken bones, and concussions. The performances strain their bodies to the breaking point. Bowman fractured his spine while performing. Not only do these injuries require workers to take time off, but repeated injuries may result in chronic medical issues.
The company sends workers to a clinic which appears to function on behalf of management. They say that instead of diagnosing and treating their issues, the clinic gives them a Tylenol and sends them back to work.
Workers are also fighting for living wages. Even before the strike, at least one Medieval Times worker was living out of his car. At their current wage rates, the workers say, they can’t afford housing in Southern California’s expensive market.
On top of the low wages, once workers organized, the company retaliated financially. During contract negotiations. “They started our negotiations for our raises at 1 percent, while we knew that they had gone to every other non-union location and given them somewhere between 25 to 35 percent raises,” said Bowman.
The National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint on May 2 against Medieval Times for this retaliation and other unfair labor practices. A hearing is scheduled for October 2.
SOUND AND LIGHTING GOES UNION, TOO
The strike has inspired other Medieval Times workers in Buena Park to unionize.
The workers of the Medieval Times Sound and Lighting department notified the company of their intent to unionize with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees March 19. As motivation for their union drive, they cited the ongoing strike and management’s response: wrongfully accusing them of sabotage.
They unanimously voted to unionize with IATSE Local 504 April 26.
“The Sound and Lighting department had always thrown around the idea of unionizing, but no one had ever stepped up to make it happen,” said member Emily Schmidt. “After our co-workers unionized with AGVA, we were provided with the connections we needed when representatives from IATSE came to the picket line and met with us personally.”
REGIONAL LABOR SUPPORT
As unionization continues to expand at the facility, the workers are drawing support from each other and from activists around them.
The organized performers have received support on their picket line from unions across Southern California, and guidance from more experienced union allies such as Teamsters Local 952 and the Musicians Local 7.
“We must support our fellow performers when they are being mistreated by an employer that disregards the health and welfare of their workers,” said Local 7 President Edmund Velasco. “These performers suffer broken bones and other numerous wounds in the line of their duties.”
Join the next MTU rally at Medieval Times in Buena Park on Sunday, May 7, 12:30 – 8 p.m. You can support MTU’s strike fund here. Ericka Wills is a professor at the University of Wisconsin School for Workers.