A sign in front of an office building for The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees is pictured, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in Burbank, Calif. The Maine chapter, IATSE Local 114, is picketing an event in Portland on Nov. 18. Credit: Chris Pizzello / AP

Members of a Maine stagehands union plan to picket tonight’s appearance by comedian Chelsea Handler at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

They are protesting the city’s decision not to renew a longstanding union agreement in favor of using non-union labor from an Old Town-based company owned by Waterfront Concerts’ Alex Gray. The union has no issue with the artist.

Asked about the labor dispute, a spokesperson for the City of Portland said Wednesday that it will instead use a model of soliciting bids for stagehand labor, breaking a long-standing agreement with the labor union.

“As a result of the pandemic and some questions regarding a failure to fill a labor call for a recent performance, several months ago, City Manager Jon Jennings and City staff discussed the contract and the possibility of using the request for proposals process for the service of stage labor,” said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin on Wednesday.

The RFP process will begin in the new year, and IATSE will be eligible to submit proposals, Grondin said. 

The local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, IATSE Local 114, has been the sole provider of stage labor for events at the city-owned Merrill Auditorium since it opened in 1997, said the union’s business agent Douglas Born.

“We finally got the city to put it in writing several years ago to avoid situations just like this one, but suddenly the city wants to ignore that history and our continuing contribution to its operation,” Born said.

The stagehands’ union contract with the City of Portland was first signed in 2010. It expired in July 2020.

IATSE had reached out to the city to renew the contract, and received informal assurances that the two parties would renegotiate. But that never happened.

At that time, the city of Portland had furloughed much of its staff, and concerts and other live events weren’t happening. Given the circumstances, the union “wasn’t in a big hurry” to extend the contract as soon as it expired, according to Born.

Later, the union asked for a letter of understanding from the city that they’d renegotiate or extend the expired contract when they had the opportunity. City staff assured them that they would, according to Born.

Last week, they got a different story. IATSE 114 reps inquired with the city about the scheduled show. They were told that the city was going in a different direction, putting out requests for proposals from clients instead of working with the union.

For now, the city is using stagehand labor from Production Services of Maine, which provides stagehands, ushering, food and other services, mostly at the Maine Savings Amphitheater in Bangor. The company was founded as a support organization and affiliate of Waterfront Concerts, the promoter of the Nov. 18 performance by comedian Handler. Both companies are owned by prominent Old Town-based concert promoter Alex Gray.

Gray said the communication he received from Portland was that “we could effectively use our own people if we chose to, so we chose to.”

IATSE remains the labor provider for other promoters hosting events at city facilities during the holiday season, and city staff “have discussed” a memorandum of understanding with the union for upcoming shows in lieu of a contract, Grondin said.

The city spokesperson’s response appears to confirm the union’s concern that the city is prepared to work with non-union labor companies like Gray’s for future stagehand contracts.

“We feel certain that he’s been agitating for the city to lose their contract with us so he can bring in his own folks for his own shows,” Born said.

That’s ultimately bad for the industry, according to the union.

When entertainment companies go with non-union labor, “they pay their workers less and put more money in their back pocket,” Born said.

In 2018, Portland’s council voted not to do business with Alex Gray’s Waterfront Concerts, rescinding a contract for a series of shows at the Maine State Pier and contracting instead directly with Live Nation Concerts, the company’s national partner. The decision was in response to widespread public pressure to cut ties with the concert promoter after a domestic violence charge from his former girlfriend that Gray pleaded guilty to in 2017. 

Even as he pleaded guilty, Gray maintained that he did not assault his former girlfriend. The district attorney dismissed the domestic violence charges against him a year after his original plea.

Gray said he did not have a position on working with the city after the 2018 decision.

“I think the city does what the city feels like they need to do at different junctures,” he said. “I don’t know what other subcontractors [Portland] works with and how deep they dive into what they do, who they are and where they are when they’re not working for the city.”

Production Services of Maine has contracted with the city for events at Merrill Auditorium in the past — but for audiovisual services, not stagehand labor, because the city was contracted with IATSE, Gray said.

IATSE stagehands plan to hand out information about the dispute outside the Nov. 18 event.