Somerville: Projecting An Unsettled Labor Picture


by Benjamin Gedan
Boston Sunday Globe [City Weekly section, May 25, 2003]

Projectionists at the historic Somerville Theatre were outraged by what they decried as unsafe working conditions. Poor air quality, projectors precariously perched on cinderblocks, exposed wires, and hidden fire extinguishers, had made their behind-the-scenes work treacherous, workers alleged.

From May 1 to May 6, they went on strike, taking to the streets and sidewalks of Davis Square. Now, almost three weeks later, the projectionists have added a demand to their long list of grievances: the right to return to work. Those who struck say they let management know they were ready to work again, but only projectionists who didn't strike have been offered hours.

"They have made it very clear that they're anti-union," said Mark Laskey, who has helped organize a campaign to unionize the projectionists. "We're trying to keep the pressure on."

The theater's general manager, Ian Judge, said the facility had never been fined for violating health or safety codes. He declined comment on whether the strikers were being barred from work. Melvin Fraiman, owner of the independently owned theater, did not return calls for comment.

The projectionists lobbying for a return to work have appealed to the federal National Labor Relations Board for intervention. Last Monday, workers filed an official complaint at an NLRB hearing in Boston, Laskey said.

The group has not reversed its pro-union position, announced to management on April 30. While efforts to end the alleged lock-out continue, the projectionists are still organizing weekend demonstrations, distributing flyers, and publishing an email newsletter.

Demands for higher wages, benefits, and fixed schedules also prompted the strike by four of the theater's seven projectionists. Laskey said those issues will loom large during a planned June 12 vote on whether to join the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Local 182.

"The only answer to our problem is escalation!" the group wrote in a recent mass email, which called for a boycott of the theater, or at least the popcorn and soda. So far, however, ticket sales remain steady and the labor dispute has not caused a single canceled movie or performance, Judge said. The five movie screens require only one projectionist each shift.

"Everything is pretty normal," Judge said last week. "You get negative comments from a few people, but for the most part, nobody cares."