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Another Alamo Drafthouse Theater in NYC Is Unionizing in Barbenheimer’s Wake

Hi Barbie, let's go join a union!

1:55 PM EDT on September 7, 2023

"Alamo Drafthouse Cinema" written on a window.

(Hell Gate)

Did Barbenheimer spur a flurry of union organizing by movie theater employees? In New York City, the answer appears to be yes: On Wednesday, workers at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Lower Manhattan filed a petition to unionize, joining workers at the Downtown Brooklyn theater in organizing with the United Auto Workers, with employees at both locations saying that the brutal Barbenheimer rush left staff at both theaters discussing their options.

Like their counterparts in Brooklyn, union organizers at the Lower Manhattan theater worry that severe short staffing and insufficient hours are straining employees to the breaking point, a concern that was highlighted during Barbenheimer. They also pointed to management's mishandling of sexual harassment and anti-gay comments by other employees as a reason they decided to unionize. 

"We've tried to play by every avenue they provided for us. This is the last resort," Tyler Trautman, a shift lead at the theater, told Hell Gate. "They're forcing us to unionize, because they haven't been responsive to any of our attempts to fix the workplace."

The Lower Manhattan petition is the latest in a recent series of union drives at New York City Alamo Drafthouse theaters, underscoring shared concerns about staffing and scheduling at the company. On June 7, projectionists at the Brooklyn location filed to unionize with IATSE Local 306 on June 7. (This move was quickly followed by an announcement from the company that it planned to get rid of the projectionist position; in response, IATSE filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which has been withdrawn, according to the company.) And on August 21, servers, kitchen staff, and other workers at the Brooklyn theater filed their own petition to join UAW Local 2179.

Manhattan staff were first approached by workers organizing a union at the Brooklyn location to discuss starting their own union drive in mid-August, a little over a week before the Brooklynites filed their petition. In less than a month, more than 75 percent of workers at the Manhattan theater had signed cards. They are now waiting for the NLRB to pick an election date.

Workers told Hell Gate they hope a union can reform their chaotic and toxic workplace.

Maggie Quick, a server at the Lower Manhattan Alamo Drafthouse, described an incident in which an employee dressed as a doctor for Halloween offered multiple women coworkers, including Quick, a gynecology exam.

Quick reported the situation to management and human resources. Screenshots from a complaints portal corroborate an investigation into a "gynecologist situation."

"I am legally and ethically unable to share exactly what measures were taken to address this concern," an official told Quick in a message. "What I can definitively share is that your voice has been heard and that action has been taken. We were not able to fully corroborate the claims made based off of conversations with potential witnesses."

"Creating a safe work environment for our teammates is a top priority," said an Alamo spokesperson when Hell Gate inquired about the incident. "Alamo Drafthouse has a zero tolerance policy of sexual harassment, discrimination, or racism of any kind and the alleged incidents are a clear violation of the company Code of Conduct." The spokesperson noted that the company has created official channels for employees to report harassment and other workplace issues. "All allegations and complaints are investigated thoroughly with appropriate discipline, up to and including termination," they added. "The specific allegations from the Alamo Manhattan location are being investigated and will be handled appropriately."

But multiple workers expressed frustration that the staff member in question kept his job after the incident. He was only fired months later, after showing up late to work, organizers said.

"A pattern at the Alamo is you can say whatever you want, and you won't get fired. But if you're late, that's where they're going to fire you," said Quick. "It's just unfortunate that that's where their priorities are."

There have been other instances in which management has displayed a permissiveness for inappropriate workplace behavior at Alamo, workers said.

Alejandro Agudelo, a server at the theater, said a coworker once complained to him in front of customers about working movies about, as Agudelo recalled, "gay and trans shit." He allegedly proceeded to harangue Agudelo, who is gay, for his sexuality.

A manager later pulled Agudelo aside and, according to Agudelo, asked him not to discuss queer topics in front of coworkers.

"I thought at the time that the person who was harassing me was going to lose their job," he said. "But it turned out that I was being spoken to because that person who was making those comments was uncomfortable with me talking about those things in front of him."

In addition to pushing for transparency and follow through for workplace investigations, organizers are hoping a union can bargain for higher staffing rates and more hours. 

The short staffing issue came into focus for many workers during this summer's big blockbuster movie event: Barbenheimer.

"This summer, especially with Barbenheimer, things were just so unbearably horrible, like, abnormal. And everything corporate was doing was making it so much worse," said Quick. "The biggest issue was understaffing us consistently."

One server for about 45 people is what Quick considers a healthy ratio. During Barbenheimer, every show was sold out, and staff were regularly each serving 100 guests or more, she said. Tips declined as workers struggled to keep up, according to Quick.

Agudelo estimated most servers were responsible for between 90 to 140 guests during that period.

Even when multibillion-dollar box office events aren't swamping the theater, workers can still face unacceptable workloads.

Quick described one instance in which a miscommunication left her serving about 100 guests at once. "I'm just sitting in there, running back and forth, can't even catch my breath, on the verge of tears, getting yelled at by people who are waiting 10 minutes for a cocktail, and I'm like, 'I don't know what to tell you,'" she recalled.

"We all work very hard. Corporate is taking advantage of us and overworking us just for them to get holidays off, holiday pay while the rest of us have to come in and work for pennies and not get appreciated financially," said Agudelo. "Instead, we just get two free movie tickets, like we don't already work at a movie theater."

This article has been updated to note that an unfair labor practice filed by IATSE against Alamo has been resolved.

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