The Inflatable Union Rat Is About to Go Up In Front of the TLA

It's concert promotion company Live Nation vs. the stagehands union.

Photo by Daniel Little

Photo by Daniel Little

When folksy WXPN-favored singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens shows up for her $42-a-head gig on Friday night at the TLA on South Street, she’ll be welcomed by that wonderful ambassador of Philadelphia conflict: the giant inflatable union rat.

The rat, which is scheduled to take its position in front of the TLA on Friday afternoon, is the result of a battle between venue owner and concert promotion behemoth Live Nation and IATSE Local 8, the Philadelphia stagehands union.

We first caught wind of the dustup on Thursday afternoon, when the following message was posted to Facebook:

TLA Stagehands set-up, fired – The job was done. The stagehands were released. The production manager offered the workers a complimentary shot. Days later, Live Nation corporate HR fired the Hands for drinking on the job. This cannot stand. This is why we need unions.

And then someone else had this to say, also on Facebook:

Today, I was fired by Live Nation because my fellow employees and I chose to be represented by the Local 8 Stagehands Union. Myself and 3 other employees were wrongfully let go due to unfair corporate policies that were implemented during the organizing phase. We were set up by management and told that we are to be terminated immediately. Please show your support and share this post so that the management and the corporate machine behind this injustice are exposed both locally and nationally.

We checked in with the Philadelphia office of Live Nation, where we were nicely told “no comment.” And so we got IATSE Local 8 head Mike Barnes on the phone to find out more. If his name sounds familiar to you, it’s because Barnes was the guy representing the stagehands during the eventful 2013 stagehands strike at Philadelphia Theatre Company. That’s him with the megaphone in the photo above.

According to Barnes, IATSE Local 8 has had agreements with Live Nation to cover all of the stagehand work at Susquehanna Bank Center and other outdoor concert venues and earlier this year came in to represent the stagehands at Live Nation’s Tower Theatre in Upper Darby and, most recently, the TLA. The TLA stagehands voted 18 to three in favor of unionizing, and Live Nation filed at least one objection with the National Labor Relations Board, which is currently reviewing the matter.

The TLA stagehands and their supporters strike a post of solidarity in front of the venue.

The TLA stagehands and their supporters strike a post of solidarity in front of the venue.

In January, says Barnes, Live Nation implemented a new drug and alcohol policy, and on Thursday, the company terminated four employees, notifying them that they had violated the policy.

But Barnes says that’s hogwash and that the real reason they were terminated was that the four employees are union supporters, and Live Nation is trying to bust the union. Barnes also maintains that Live Nation’s implementation of the policy during the union’s organizing drive was unlawful, and he’s filed charges against Live Nation with the NLRB to that effect.

As for the alleged violations of the drug and alcohol policy, Barnes says that’s a bunch of baloney as well. According to him, one of the four stagehands categorically denies taking a drink. In another instance, the drummer for local band G. Love & Special Sauce left a bottle of booze behind, and two stagehands took a shot from it after they clocked out and with their manager’s permission — the same manager who reported them for violating the policy, says Barnes. And Barnes claims that the fourth employee was handed a beer from a performer for a job well done — again, after the stagehand clocked out.

“You gotta take into context the fact that you’re in a club,” says Barnes. “Drugs and alcohol are part of the equation in this environment. But they did not partake in drinking during working hours, and everyone at our meeting with Live Nation yesterday acknowledged that.”

Barnes says that he showed up for the meeting with the four terminated employees and two other Local 8 officers, expecting the meeting to be about an investigation into the employees’ behavior.

“We went in to present our side,” says Barnes. “But they told us that this was not an investigation. It was a termination. There were employees terminated that were never interviewed to get their side of the story.”

The union plans to mount a social media campaign, reaching out to the performers who play at Live Nation venues, including the TLA, for support.

“And of course we are going to take advantage of our First Amendment rights,” promises Barnes. “The rat.”