Published September 2018
My role with Mill City Summer Opera started in its inaugural season (2012) when I accepted the electrician call but due to an unrelated workplace injury, was unable to fulfill my assignment. The email from the master electrician, totally believable, should have been a red flag.
“The labor budget for this was determined by the board of directors, to be done as independent contractor work, before any production supervisors were hired,” he wrote in his call out for electricians, “The hourly rate will be $20, after midnight, before 8:00am $30.” The following year, the rate had already deteriorated, “I am able to pay $17.50/hour, with the rigger and board op […] making $20/hr.” These fees were not great compared to other companies, considering contractor status, and were also explicitly non-negotiable.
As the assistant production manager in 2013, I saw how the company worked. Designers, cast, and the artistic director were flown in, housed, and wine-and-dined for the run of the show. Meanwhile, some technicians were paid $6.50-10 per hour for their work in disagreeable outdoor conditions. Crew safety was a major concern in the summer heat, tenuous grounds, and an over-night schedule. The production manager, with increasing pressure from technicians, tried to appeal for better wages and employee status for technicians but management repeatedly refused.
The real push for us came in 2016, after David and I met with the artistic director and new production manager. Despite claims like this one, “now I know who is yelling the loudest this year, so we’ll see what we can do.” There was a huge outpouring of support from the community for what we had done and would do to fight for their rights, especially from the costume folks even though they were some of the better paid, safer, and more correctly classified than the rest of us. The troops were mobilized, and we reached out to the IRS and Department of Labor and Industry for help.
Retaliation appeared high the following year as all electricians and riggers were replaced with a subcontracting company. The show labor needs dropped to an all-time low as well, but this had more to do with a forced venue change. When the company returned to the ruins in 2018 (after the following story aired on MPR), they had almost a 100% staff change over including the long-lasting artistic director.
In many ways, we had won by losing. The technicians were now covered by an outside company who agreed to hire them as employees (and thus grant them workers compensation) but none of the technicians who had fought for those rights were still there to reap the benefits. Mill City Summer Opera’s reputation and the community that they had built was also sacrificed along the way.
We did not set out to punish people’s ambitions or make sacrifices to the art – we have our rights because people fought and died to get them, and we’re owed that consideration by producers. We are willing to do it again and again, if we must.