‘Barbenheimer’ was a boon to movie theaters and a headache for many workers. So they’re unionizing


(AP) — For movie theater owners around the country, the same-day release of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” this summer meant record box office sales and a gratifying sign that the public still craved entertainment on the big screen.

But for some employees at the Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan, “Barbenheimer” was the breaking point.

“That really pushed us to the edge,” says Maggie Quick, a guest attendant. “It was just the constant understaffing and the emotional exhaustion.”

“People were waiting longer than usual for their food and that makes them short-tempered and impatient,” recalls Tyler Trautman, a shift leader. “We’re the ones facing customers. It takes a toll, a mental toll, to be yelled at by guests because their drink has been taking an hour.”

Quick and Trautman were among dozens at the Manhattan theater who decided it was time to form a union. Alamo employees worked with United Auto Workers Local 2179 and this week voted to unionize, with nearly two-thirds in favor. They join Alamo employees at the Brooklyn theater, who voted last month to become part of Local 2179.

“We’re very excited to be moving forward in solidarity with Brooklyn,” Quick said after the vote was announced. “We have strength in our numbers and hope to see some real change.”

An Alamo spokesperson said the company would decline comment.

Showtimes for the films "Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" are pictured behind the ticket booth at the Los Feliz Theatre, Friday, July 28, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Showtimes for the films “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” are pictured behind the ticket booth in July at the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles. While the cinematic showdown was a boon for movie theaters, workers at Alamo Drafthouse locations in New York described it as a breaking point. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

At a time of labor action in the movie industry and beyond, union activity is expanding at movie theaters themselves, a trend that began during the pandemic. Over the past two years, employees have formed or attempted to form unions at the Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives in New York, the Amherst Cinema in Massachusetts, and Alamo Drafthouses in San Francisco and Austin, Texas, home to Alamo’s company headquarters.

The transition to a union shop went smoothly at some theaters. The owners in Amherst voluntarily agreed to recognize the union and a contract was reached earlier this year. Film Forum workers, who unionized in 2022, agreed last summer to a 5-year contract that raises salaries by an average of 12%. Anthology Film Archives employees went on strike for a day last year, but have since agreed to terms.

“Overall, it’s been fairly peaceful,” says Olga Brudastova, president of UAW Local 2110, which represents the Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives unions. In a statement, Chad Bolton, the Film Forum general manager, said the contract was born from “a thorough and thoughtful process.”

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Outside the Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

But at Alamo Drafthouse, the chain known for its eclectic offerings of films and in-theater food and drink service, employees speak of ongoing resistance from the company. According to images and audio recordings obtained by The Associated Press, Alamo management in New York has posted flyers urging workers not to unionize and brought in speakers from Texas, including Alamo co-founder Tim League.

“We appreciate everything you do for our venue and believe we can work better together to solve problems without the need of a third party like a union to come between us and charge you dues,” one flyer reads.

Alamo held meetings in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the weeks leading up to union votes. In each gathering, management officials acknowledged discontent among staff members, while reiterating that any issues were better worked out entirely within the company.

In Brooklyn, per the recordings, League reflected on the company’s history, dating back to its origins in the 1990s. He spoke of his dedication to the Alamo and of his own progressive affinities, including his “passionate” support for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Both League and his wife and Alamo co-founder Karrie League have contributed to various Democratic Party candidates. Tim League has publicly praised the pro-labor senator’s 2016 presidential run, telling a CNBC interviewer in 2016 that “Bernie is going to be good for America.”

Striking writers and actors picket outside Paramount studios in Los Angeles on Friday, July 14, 2023. This marks the first day actors formally joined the picket lines, more than two months after screenwriters began striking in their bid to get better pay and working conditions. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Striking workers and actors picketing outside Paramount Studios in Los Angeles in July (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
United Auto Workers member Brian Rooster Heppner raises his fist as he cheers during a rally in Detroit, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. The UAW is conducting a strike against Ford, Stellantis and General Motors. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
United Auto Workers members at a September rally in Detroit (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

League emphasized that he “understood” why Hollywood actors and writers were striking, and why auto workers went on strike. But for Alamo, he said, unions would be a step back, a “communication block.”

“I fully recognize my own personal bias here,” he said. “I don’t think that forming a union is the right solution for Alamo, that is my personal opinion. I’m concerned that a union is going to drive a wedge between us.”

Only 6% of private U.S. sector workers belong to unions today, a fraction of the 35% represented in the 1950s. But more workers in numerous industries have begun organizing lately and their actions have public support. According to Gallup, approval of stronger unions stands at 67%, down slightly from the 71% approval seen last year, but mirroring levels last seen in the 1960s. A recent AP-NORC poll found that a majority of U.S. adults sympathized with the striking Hollywood workers.

The Leagues were recent graduates of Rice University when in 1997 they opened the first Alamo, a single-screen venue in Austin. They soon established a word-of-mouth following among movie lovers and within the next few years opened several other locations around Texas. In 2005, Entertainment Weekly named Alamo Drafthouse the country’s best cinema venue, calling the experience “movie geek heaven.”

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

The Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

The company now has dozens of theaters around the U.S. but endured financial struggles during the pandemic. In March 2021, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, closed some locations, and canceled plans to open new ones. Alamo emerged from bankruptcy at the end of May 2021, under the ownership of League. Altamont Capital Partners and Fortress Investment Group. Michael Kusterman, a former executive at Caveman Foods, has been Alamo CEO since replacing the retiring Shelli Taylor in July.

League, who in 2020 became executive chairman of Alamo, said in the recordings he was “disappointed” Brooklyn workers wanted to unionize while adding that the company couldn’t meet his high standards for Alamo without a happy staff. He acknowledged past errors, including a “troubling lack of communication,” but said that Alamo was committed to moving forward. He asked the staff to give the management team a year to prove itself.

“I hear you and I’ll keep on listening,” he said. “Like I said, I built this company to be the best damn cinema that has ever or will ever exist. And it’s an aspirational goal. It’ll never be complete. I personally feel strongly that inserting a union between you and me and the team hinders that goal. So that’s why even after all the work, the hard work that’s been done to get to this point, I ask you to vote ‘no’ in forming a union.”

Within days, Brooklyn employees voted to unionize, by a margin of more than 2-to-1.

“For years the workers of Brooklyn Alamo have tried to solve problems through dialogue with management, to no avail,” the union statement read in part. “Now Alamo Drafthouse must meet us at the bargaining table.”

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