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City Subsidized Theatre Rejects Union Labor

Martin Lipow, president of Local 169 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE) says that un-trained, non-union employees in the projection rooms at the new Alameda Theatre are likely to damage film prints and increase the costs for maintaining equipment at the theatre. Lipow says that the Alameda Theatre is using non-union “front of the house employees,” such as ushers, concession stand workers and ticket-takers, rather than trained projectionists, to effectively just “push the button” to start screenings on sophisticated equipment that was designed to be run by professionals. The results, he says, will be a diminished theatre experience for Alameda movie-goers, and a poorly run theatre that might not succeed.

Lipow works for Renaissance Rialto Theatres – owned by Allen Michaan – which also runs the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, the Orinda Theatre, and Auctions by the Bay at Alameda Point. Michaan is known for the political messages he posts on the Grand Lake Theatre, such as the anti-Iraq war slogan “No War For Oil.”

In May of this year, the renovated Alameda Theatre, and the adjacent seven screen cineplex opened with an evening gala event attended by the city’s elite. But the start of the film screening that night was botched, an embarrassment for the theatre’s operator, Kyle Connor of Alameda Entertainment Associates. Earlier this month, Local 169 picketed the Alameda Theatre with 25 members, advising movie-goers that the theatre’s operator refuses to hire union projectionists and will not engage in discussions with the union. Lipow says “Our business agent has given Mr. Connor our contact information, but he [Connor] won’t call us. We’ve sent a letter to Mr. Connor explaining that we’d rather negotiate than picket in front of the theatre.” and that Connor obstructed IATSE bargaining talks in Berkeley in 1988 when the Elmwood Merchants Association took over the Elmwood theatre from United Artists after a fire. Connor did not respond to requests for interviews for this article.

Responding by e-mail, City of Alameda Councilmember Frank Matarrese acknowledged the technical problems the night of the gala opening, but insists that “Mr. Conner will operate and maintain the theatre complex as a quality operation as is appears to be running now.” The City of Alameda has subsidized the restoration of the Alameda Theatre, the attached cineplex and Civic Center Parking Garage to the tune of over $30 million of property tax funds through its redevelopment agency.

But Lipow says the screens currently installed in the Alameda cineplex are not up to industry standards, and that he’s already heard of scratched film prints. Theatres that damage film prints sometimes have to pay increased rental rates to the distributor as a result. It’s like having to pay for scratches and dents on a rental car when you return it. Further, Lipow says, the lack of maintenance for the projection equipment by skilled technicians will take it’s toll – if the lenses aren’t cleaned, they can get damaged, and it will affect the visual quality of the movie experience. And un-trained equipment operators from the front of the house don’t know good sound quality from bad. Lipow predicts that ultimately the theatre will pay more for repairs to equipment to outside firms than it would cost to hire union projectionists, and that Alameda movie-goers can expect late or aborted show starts, off-centered screen projections, and longer disruptions than otherwise necessary in getting show schedules back on track after equipment failures.

Said Lipow – “Theatre owners have to face the fact that people have more and more options for entertainment, so the theatre needs to be extremely well run – the whole direction needs to be going in the direction of higher quality, not lower quality, to compete with these other options. Connor is taking it in the direction of lower quality.”

The union currently has no specific plans to picket the theatre again, but Lipow asserted that “we will probably be back.”

Addendum – shortly after publication of this article, we received a message from an Alameda resident who wrote “The movie I went to see last week started late (and I mean even the previews started after the stated movie show-time)”

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