The Industrial Workers of the World’s Drafthouse United are still waiting for union recognition from management at Alamo Drafthouse, after announcing on February 14 that they intend to unionize the South Lamar movie theater in Austin, Texas. Despite a dismissive public response from management, many Austin residents have expressed their support over social media for the workers, who are organizing with the IWW.
“Just how much I’ve seen on social media — everyone posting about their support, posting online asking Drafthouse to recognize the union — it’s just phenomenal,” says Duncan Lott, a worker at Alamo Drafthouse and union member.
Organizing at the South Lamar location started after an all-staff Zoom meeting in October of last year. Management encouraged workers at multiple locations to express their concerns about workplace conditions and policy, but gave vague or dismissive answers and cut the meeting short due to the predominantly negative feedback. Many of the workers were left frustrated that management would not heed their concerns, and a few began to entertain the idea of unionizing.
Out of the many concerns voiced by workers, the most predominant were the failure of the company to enforce its own COVID-19 policies, the shift from individual tip collection to tip-pooling, and low wages. Tip-pooling in particular struck a nerve with “Corpse” Corpstein, a server at Alamo Drafthouse for four years.
“The pay structure when we reopened had been changed into a tip-pooling structure, instead of keeping your own tips and tipping out,” says Corpstein. “For the purposes of reopening with a skeleton crew, and the very low volume that we were going to be dealing with, it totally made sense. But after a year of being reopened, there was no plan to change that back or to work with the employees to try to make it more equitable for us.”
“There’s also been, in Austin especially, a very high rate of inflation,” Corpstein continues. “The cost of living has gone up dramatically in the last two or three years. Coupled with the lack of transparency about business decisions, especially COVID guidelines, those are the two things that really got people’s foot in the door, organizationally speaking.”
COVID guidelines are also a particular concern to Lott, who had a frustrating experience with management when a coworker fell ill and potentially exposed other staff.
“I was on a manager’s shift at one point, and someone called in saying they had COVID,” says Lott. “One of the corporate people happened to be in the store at the time, and so I asked, ‘What do I do?’ He said, ‘Just text your [general manager] and tell them.’ I asked if I needed to talk to the COVID response team. He said, basically, that rapid response isn’t really a priority anymore. That was the thing that really lit a fire under me.”
Fortunately, Alamo Drafthouse workers were able to get in contact with an IWW organizer through a personal acquaintance. Corpstein and Lott both say that the IWW is appealing to workers at Alamo Drafthouse for its unique organizing strategies and has allowed workers self-determination throughout their union drive.
“We were able to sort of craft our strategies around our very unique line of work,” says Corpstein, referring to Alamo Drafthouse’s movie theater/restaurant business model.
The workers at Alamo Drafthouse hope that management will grant their union voluntary recognition. If not, the decision will come down to a vote via the National Labor Relations Board. Corpstein expresses optimism that the vote will be in the union’s favor and that staff at other Alamo Drafthouse locations will see what organizing can do for their workplaces.
“I think some of the problems that we have been experiencing, like a lack of transparency from upper management, will translate to all other locations,” says Corpstein. “And if they feel the need to have their own conversations with upper management, then by all means, we can lead by example.”
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is a labor union representing nearly 9,000 workers across North America. Established in 1905, the IWW is known for its high standards of democracy, transparency, multinationalism, and active use of the right to strike.