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Unions, pirates and the cutthroat business of rigging: The battle over stagehand contracts.

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When Jason Moore was 2, his father, Billy, took him up to the net at the crown of the Richmond Coliseum, 120 feet in the air. That's where Billy has worked as a rigger since the Coliseum opened in 1973, hoisting the ropes that pull lights and speakers into the air for concerts, shows and sporting events.

In order to pull up such equipment, the riggers lumber out onto a net just below the ceiling where the steel beams support the roof. The net, which gives like a trampoline, is made of metal rope covered in plastic tubing that's woven into a mesh roughly proportionate to a chain-link fence. It offers an unobstructed view of the Coliseum's 12,000 seats and the concrete floor 12 stories below. Even hardened regulars can recall their first gut-churning encounter with the net, but Billy gave his son Jason that first sea-sick look down at the valley of seats sloping into the concrete floor as a toddler.

After Jason's first visit, Billy recalls, “his little finger prints stuck in the dusty beams” for years.

Now 38, Jason Moore is trying to keep his fingerprints in more than just the Coliseum. He followed in his father's footsteps and started rigging as a teenager, eventually opening his own businesses: Gridmonkie, which provides riggers for shows, and Stagemonkie, which staffs stagehands. Before Moore opened his shop, the local stagehand union — the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 87 — staffed Richmond's venues. Stagemonkie and Local 87 have been competing to control labor in Richmond's venues ever since.

The competition began in earnest three years ago when Stagemonkie won the labor contract at the Coliseum away from the union. On June 15 the company managing Richmond's Landmark Theater will award a new three-year labor contract. Stagemonkie and Local 87 have put in bids.

Virginia's conservative labor laws have significantly weakened Local 87 since it formed in 1902. Without the Coliseum or the Landmark, and with CenterStage leaning toward a smaller in-house staff, the union's ability to bring its members work, in a field where the gigs are part-time and seasonal at best, will be crippled.

“Unions are great philosophically,” Moore says. “So is socialism. So is communism. So is capitalism. Everything's great on paper, but people fuck stuff up all the time.”

 

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John Fulwider, who's been with the local stagehand union since 1968, hopes he can hold on to the Landmark Theater contract and drive the competition out of town. Photo by Ash Daniel

John Fulwider, head of Local 87, has his own goals: “to run Stagemonkie out of Richmond,” he says. Well over 6 feet tall, Fulwider is an imposing man with a big block head, thick fingers, a deep voice and a frankness about his competitor. “[Jason]'s cocky,” he says. “He lets his mouth overload his butt.”

If Moore and Fulwider talk like sailors, they're only keeping tradition alive. The first riggers, indeed, were sailors, says LaVahn Hoh, a technical theater professor at the University of Virginia. Going all the way back to the Roman Empire, he says, “there's a conjecture that there was an awning at the Coliseum that went over the audience.” Historians have theorized that the sailors likely did the work of hanging the awning because of their familiarity with knots and lines, and experience moving heavy things across scaffolding and high-up places. Those skills have carried through the years from the Coliseum in Rome to the one here in Richmond.

Not every venue has a net, but at the Richmond Coliseum it bounces under the burly workers. Steel beams run diagonally from the roof to the outer walls to support the ceiling, but lights hang from them too. Hours before any hockey game, circus performance or ice-skating show, a rigger, sans harness, has likely slid down one of the beams and secured the heavy lights that make the Ice Princess' sequined bodice sparkle.

Riggers pull equipment up with polyester ropes attached to twisted metal lines. Each foot of metal rope weighs about a pound, so the longer the line that's lifted off the floor, the heavier it gets, maxing out at 120 pounds of rope. Then a motor runs up the metal rope towing a lighting fixture or a speaker.

Dropping equipment would be catastrophic, but from that height even a falling screw could pick up enough momentum to cut clear through a man's skull. Famously, in 2003, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera had to cancel part of their tour after crew members in Atlantic City overloaded a lighting grid that buckled and fell from the ceiling. No one was seriously injured, but it was a $1 million accident. If the metal rope looped around a beam begins to vibrate from the weight of the equipment being hoisted, it could also saw through the steel, which could be even more catastrophic.

There's no school for riggers. Most learn the trade as they work, and in Richmond to get a job, you used to have to go through the union.

Fulwilder joined the union in 1968 when it needed a few extra hands for a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Mosque, now the Landmark. Union members must be voted in. Fulwider made the cut by one vote, and recalls that his brothers, who were members, voted against him. Because stagehand work is seasonal and there are a limited number of slots on each show, members have an interest in keeping membership tight to ensure they'll get called. “I know a gentleman who didn't even vote for his own son,” Fulwider says.

John “Bo” Bobenia, a rigger who owns Hanging Concepts, a rigging company that mostly works outside of Richmond, says that the same instinct for self-preservation may be what's endangering the union now.

The unions “have not been seeding for the future,” Bobenia says. “They didn't want to hire young guys and break them in, because they were afraid they would replace them, which is always a consideration, but it's a process of evolution.”

Stagehand work can be a clannish business. Because unloading trucks and hauling boxes takes little training, it's easy for whoever is doing the hiring to call on friends and family who need work. Many riggers start as stagehands and become riggers to earn more respect and a higher hourly wage. The dangerous work spawns a sense of brotherhood, and touring shows often include a revolving cast of old friends to catch up with, a family to be a part of.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, when Fulwider needed to get riggers for a show, he'd call Billy Moore to round them up. Among riggers, Billy is a legend, known for being every bit as crazy as he is a hard worker. Almost everyone knows the story about a show in the early '80s when he decided it was too hot up in the net and slid down a rope all the way to the floor. He still has scars from the rope burn.

As Billy Moore got older, Fulwider began calling Jason Moore. Riggers get paid more than stagehands — in the neighborhood of $25 an hour for riggers versus $15 for hands — but are only needed for heavy work such as stadium shows and rock concerts. To get more work, Jason branched out to Virginia Beach and Northern Virginia. In 1999 he started Gridmonkie. The company expanded into a full stagehand operation, Stagemonkie, in order to secure a job shortly after 9/11, when Garth Brooks played a show in Norfolk on an aircraft carrier.

Moore continued to provide riggers for Fulwider, but a dispute over money opened a rift between them. When the Richmond Coliseum contract came up for a bid in 2006, Moore pulled his men. Fulwider was left in the lurch and had to bring in a team from North Carolina. It didn't work out, the Coliseum pulled the contract and Moore took over in 2007. He still holds the contract.

Moore was still filling Fulwider's rigging needs for bigger shows, but tension was building. Moore had never been able to get voted in to Local 87. Instead, when the national union opened a local chapter out of Virginia Beach, he and 20 other Richmond-based riggers were allowed to join, even though they don't live in that local's jurisdiction. Through a contract with the national union, even Stagemonkie's nonunion employees can pay into and access the union's health-insurance plan. Fulwider sees the move as full-blown piracy: out of jurisdiction and nonunion workers, drawing union benefits to traipse around the state and undercut other area unions.

Moore says it's Fulwider who's the bandit. In Virginia, local governments aren't allowed to contract directly with unions. To get around that, Fulwider opened his own payroll company, which technically holds the contracts with the city-owned venues, such as the Landmark, and then staffs shows with union members. It puts him in the strange position of filling the role of both employer and labor representative, flying the union flag but essentially negotiating on both sides of the table.

Now, Fulwider has found his own crew of riggers, a band of steelworkers from Hampton. While Fulwider and Moore each have tried to give their guys more steady work locally by angling for a Richmond monopoly, one group has achieved just that: SMG, the national management company that manages CenterStage, the Landmark and the Coliseum. Their responsibilities include granting the stagehand contracts. Dolly Vogt, the group's regional manager, knows Moore and Fulwider well. She says they both do good work, but at the end of the day her job is to get the most value for her client: the city.

She says she thinks the stagehand rates for both outfits are too high for the Richmond market to bear. “Sometimes [shows] skip the market because of the stagehand rate,” she says. Because SMG manages the city's three biggest venues, the company has considerable leverage. With CenterStage moving to an in-house crew, it's a possible harbinger for further efficiencies down the line. There's another ship on the sea.

“Let the best man win,” Vogt says. S

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