EVERETT — Angel of the Winds Arena is not an easy place for a rigger to work.
Stagehands at the Everett arena describe balancing on an 8-inch rounded beam as they attach lighting and video equipment in the rafters.
“Even the most experienced riggers don’t enjoy being up on that grid,” said James Conway, an Everett resident who works for multiple staging companies in the Puget Sound area.
But when at Angel of the Winds Arena, Conway said he gets paid less and doesn’t earn health care benefits.
Amid safety concerns, Conway joined an organizing movement among riggers employed by Rhino Staging NW, a subcontractor that frequently supplies riggers and stagehands for shows at the Angel of the Winds Arena and other venues in the region.
Riggers do tasks such as run sound systems, build sets and hang lights.
The union is fighting for higher wages and health care, which they say is an industry standard.
Conway, 56, has been rigging with Rhino for about three years. He called the company, “the sweatshop of the industry.”
“You start working with these other companies and you realize you’re doing the same kind of work (with Rhino) for far less of a price and less benefits and less safety … less everything,” he said.
Riggers are supposed to get breaks every two and a half hours and take eight-hour rests between jobs, but the company often asks employees to forgo those measures, Conway said.
Representatives at both Rhino’s Northwest office and company headquarters declined to comment for this story.
When workers first organized, Conway said Rhino brass quickly made a trip to meet with all Northwest employees. The CEO’s message was unions are bad for workers, and sounded more like propaganda, he said.
A lot of Conway’s colleagues were persuaded against organizing, and publicly talking about the union seemed prohibited, he said.
Fours years after a majority of the 71 Rhino northwest workers voted to unionize and joined the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 15, members are still negotiating a first contract with the company.
“We have been very patient,” said Jennifer Bacon, union president. “In our opinion Rhino has not been bargaining in good faith.”
The union said the Everett Public Facilities District, which owns Angel of the Winds Arena, and the city are looking the other way.
Bacon said the facilities district has failed to create a standard and make hiring union labor a requirement. The union, which represents about 370 workers in the Seattle-Everett area, feels the facilities district could leverage its position to force Rhino to the negotiating table.
Members of the public facilities district board are appointed by the Everett mayor and city council. The facilities district outsources management of the arena to Spectra, a venue management company.
The board is independent and makes its own decisions, according to Kimberley Cline, a spokesperson for the city.
Recent picketing outside the area took the board by surprise, Facilities District President Gary Weikel said.
Weikel, a former deputy Snohomish County executive, was unaware an organizing campaign was occurring among Rhino workers.
“We have taken the position that this is not a labor dispute with us,” Weikel said. “This is a labor dispute between that union and Rhino.”
It’s not up to the board to choose sides, he added.
Weikel said the board has brought up safety concerns with Rhino and has asked for the company’s safety record, though they have yet to receive it.
“I imagine if there were many safety violations it would be reported to the state,” Weikel said.
This fall, union members have picketed several times outside the arena. They plan to continue this at shows later this month.