Are unions bad for theater? The question is bouncing around Seattle Children's Theatre, which is negotiating a new contract with the stagehands' union and has sparked controversy by refusing to renew four individual contracts.

Background: The stagehands' union (IATSE Local 15) periodically negotiates a general contract with SCT that covers all unionized stagehands (the last negotiation was four years ago). In addition, lead stagehands have individual contracts that provide benefits above and beyond the general agreement and are renewed annually.

General contract negotiations started in April. During that time, SCT declined to renew four individual contracts. Some friends and coworkers are bothered by the sudden dismissal of the stagehands, who have worked at the theater from 5 to 12 years. But IATSE hasn't found anything shady about the non-renewals.

"The theater was within its rights to not ask those workers back," said Bill Wickline, business representative for the stagehands' union. "There could be a lot of reasons for that, from skill level to how everybody works together to new opportunities." Wickline said the four stagehands have not filed grievances.

"We've promoted other in-house IATSE members to fill the jobs," said SCT managing director Kevin Maifeld. "There were ongoing performance issues related to those four and we felt we couldn't invite them back."

The dismissals have spurred outrage and concern from a variety of corners. "That's 48 years of combined experience," said one source close to SCT. "Something's going on."

The members' union ties are the subject of off-the-record speculations. Some say the workers were booted for their strong unionism; others say they waved the union flag as an excuse to be lazy and difficult. Both claims are easy to believe: management doesn't like agitators, but organized labor, like patriotism, is a good idea that is often discredited by its loudest advocates.

Which brings us to the bigger topic. In one corner, we have the union, protecting stagehands (and actors) from exploitation. In the other, we have interns and support staff who work through their lunch breaks and have never been paid time and a half. Unionizing these workers would break theater's back, and their cheap (or free) labor furnishes the tables for the union feast. Union members and producers have more in common than they'd like to admit.

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A veteran Seattle stagehand who remembers working the shop before unions said: "As workers demand more money, and costs grow, ticket prices will rise, fewer patrons will attend, and theaters will close. I can afford to do theater because of the union. I'm grateful for the union's work. I am concerned, however, that there has been an attitude change, and that the family atmosphere has been eroded." That could mean management has become coldhearted about its long-term employees—or that some stagehands care too much about wages and not enough about work. ■

brendan@thestranger.com