- by Jacob Coakley
... It won't end in Wisconsin.
I am a member of IATSE Local 720 in Las Vegas, Nevada. At a time in my life when I was at the end of my rope, I met the Las Vegas business agent at LDI in Las Vegas, and he encouraged me to apply to enter the union. I did, was accepted, and started working. It was mainly convention gigs. No, it wasn’t “theatre”—but that was precisely the point. I had been trying to make a living doing sound design work for theatres in the Bay Area, and had hit a brick wall. I’m not blaming the Bay Area, or the theatres there, I’m just stating a fact: I was working at Starbucks at 4:45 in the morning until 1:15 in the afternoon, working on my sound in the afternoon, then going to rehearsals until late at night, tweaking the sound, then waking up a couple hours later and doing it again. I was living on ramen and Starbucks samples—barely.
The union didn’t promise me any work. A friend took me around to different shops where I spoke with the people in charge of hiring, and eventually I got a short gig, the put-in for CES. This was back before the economy crashed, and CES literally took every meeting room in town—the kind of show that needs a lot labor. I was one of those laborers. I worked hard, got hired back for the next gig, then the next, then the next. Soon I was gigging regularly. Suddenly I had a decent paycheck, health insurance, could afford rent, and had enough money to get my car fixed. I was able to take time off to return to the Bay Area to do sound design for the theatre company I worked with. When I went back to school to finish my degree, it was the union gigs I got on my breaks that paid my tuition (along with many loans).
In Wisconsin, Governor Walker has recently passed some legislation that ended the collective bargaining powers of state, city and local union workers in Wisconsin (though the police, fire fighters, and state patrol unions are exempt). As someone who literally had their life put back on a course thanks to a union, this not only felt like an attack on workers in Wisconsin, but on myself as well. Although I do not take many union labor calls now, IATSE was instrumental in helping me get where I am now, and not just myself, but all of my family.
Anyone, union or not, can create good theatre. But the fact remains that IATSE—and unions everywhere—protect the interests of people who work. My membership in a union meant that I could have (and continue to have) a decent life. Attacking the right of people to organize for a better tomorrow is no way to fix our current economic problems.