Shut Out

There wasn't the slightest sign of trouble at the American Airlines Center in July when the Eagles took center stage to mark the grand opening of the controversial, taxpayer-financed venue. Now members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 127, say they regret abandoning their plans to picket the long-awaited event.

The union's 229 members say they didn't want to cause the new arena to open on a sour note. More important, they thought their respectful silence might help them win back their old jobs.

"We kept our mouths shut in the interests of negotiating," says Brad Breitbarth, the local's business representative. Adds union member Colin Jefferson, "We thought that would be the wrong thing to do. Who wants to rain on everybody's parade?"

For 20 years, Local 127 members have composed much of the labor inside Reunion Arena, handling everything from loading equipment into the building to rigging sound and light gear from catwalks that rise more than 70 feet off the floor. It is a thankless mix of skilled and unskilled work that pays by the hour, but the 95-year-old union made sure its members received health-care benefits and pensions.

Given their experience, the union members figured they were the best choice to handle the same work at American Airlines Center. That's why they're now stunned to find themselves shut out of the work at Reunion Arena as well as the American Airlines Center.

Although the new arena is taxpayer-financed, there are no rules that require Center Operating Co., the privately held firm that manages both facilities, to give Local 127 any work. Bob Jordan, Center Operating's director of operations, says he put the job up for competitive bidding before the new arena opened and determined that Production & Rigging Resources, a Dallas-based company owned by John Bleich, was best qualified for the job. PRR was one of two companies that submitted proposals for the work. The other was Upstage Center, a private company based in Houston.

"My bottom-line analysis of the entire thing is we have three companies that have an opportunity to work and to provide their specialty and their services, and we chose the company that we feel best suits our business plan," Jordan says.

Local 127 members, however, say there is another way to explain what's happening backstage at American Airlines Center: union busting.

"It's because we're a union we're out," says Breitbarth, who adds that Local 127 never submitted a bid for the job because Jordan pointedly told him PRR was going to get it beforehand. "His words to me were, 'I don't care what you guys say; [Bleich] is going to be the person in charge in terms of the rigging and the labor.'"

Whether the bid process was really open is disputed, and Jordan insists that Local 127's status as a union had "no bearing" on his decision. There is some evidence, however, to support allegations that PRR is, in the union's words, "propagating anti-union views."

Instead of competing for the overall contract, Local 127 entered into negotiations directly with PRR last April, hoping to guarantee its members at least a portion of the work at Reunion Arena and American Airlines Center. (The city of Dallas used to operate Reunion Arena, but that authority went to the new arena's owners as part of the $230 million arena-financing referendum voters approved in 1998.)

Initially, PRR appeared ready to agree to some of the union's terms, including that it contribute money to the workers' pension funds and health plans, according to a copy of a preliminary contract the two sides drew up. A day before the Eagles equipment was to be loaded into the American Airlines Center, however, Breitbarth says PRR surprised him with a new, "non-negotiable" contract that he felt he in good faith could not sign.

Specifically, PRR asked Breitbarth to agree to terms he says are not only illegal but also would effectively strip the union of its traditional powers. Under the proposed terms, Local 127 members were not allowed to "actively solicit membership" or distribute their "business cards" while on the job. Worse, PRR retained the right to discipline and fire the union's workers at its "sole discretion."

In effect, Breitbarth says, PRR was attempting to prevent Local 127 from unionizing any of PRR's employees--a move that would appear to violate the spirit of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right of unions to organize. The union has not filed a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, but Breitbarth says he is considering that option now that talks with PRR have come to an impasse.

"They had always said, starting from the beginning, that they did not want us actively organizing employees. That's why they wanted that clause in there about firing for no reason," Breitbarth says. "We felt that was illegal. You can't stop people from talking to people."

Bleich declined to be interviewed for this story, as did PRR General Manager Beth Dixon. Instead, Dixon issued a one-page written statement in which she stated that PRR has a "long history" of hiring union and non-union workers alike. Dixon says the company could not agree to the union's terms because that would have prevented PRR from being able to manage its own work force.

"In addition, the union tried to force PRR to give union members more favorable employment terms than PRR's existing staff," wrote Dixon, who ended the letter by stating that PRR strives to "provide the best quality labor services for the metroplex area at a reasonable and equitable price."

Dixon did not specify what those terms were. She also declined to answer any questions about what PRR employees are paid and what, if any, benefits they receive. Some PRR employees, however, privately confirm that PRR does not offer any health benefits or a retirement plan. In other words, what at Reunion Arena used to be a job that came complete with benefits is today a take-it-or-leave-it gig--all thanks to the new arena.

Although Local 127 members still work at various local venues, including the Dallas Convention Center, the loss of the arena business represents some 20 percent of their income.

"I don't want to come across as whining because we're out of a job. We know they can do this; our point is Why?" Breitbarth says. "Instead of being treated as human beings, we were treated like cogs in the wheel."

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley