Workers at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Downtown Brooklyn filed a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) yesterday, August 21, after organizers rallied workers around allegations of unchecked mold and fruit fly infestations, unfair scheduling practices, and unsafe working conditions.
The organizers are aiming to unionize kitchen and bar staff, servers, concierges, and other workers who manage the day-to-day operations of the popular dinner theater chain. If successful, the union would cover almost the entire staff at the Brooklyn location. The union claims more than 75% of the roughly 190 employees covered by the bargaining group (the workers who would be represented by the union if organizers are successful) have signed cards indicating their support for an election.
“They insist on cutting every corner,” said Bridge Squitire, a server and trainer at the theater who helped organize the union drive. “It’s a lack of respect for our mental or emotional stability or our financial stability. They seem to not understand that this job is literally what keeps roofs over peoples’ heads, and it’s just infuriating.”
Squitire, who has worked at the Brooklyn location for almost two years, said employees will often have their shifts canceled at the last minute, despite the expectation that staff call out at least four hours in advance. Hours are distributed according to seniority, which has resulted in a high turnover rate as new hires find they’re not receiving enough hours, according to organizers. The turnover allegedly leads to staffing shortages as workers wait for new staff to be hired or trained.
Alamo Drafthouse did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment on the union petition and declined to confirm the company’s scheduling procedures or comment on workers’ scheduling complaints.
While workers struggle to keep up with volatile schedules, Squitire said a fruit fly infestation by the bar and dish stations has gone unchecked, and what appears to be mold is growing in the kitchen. Photographs taken by workers at the theater, acquired by Hyperallergic, show apparent fungal growth in an ice box, a receptacle used to hold a scoop for ice, and around machinery.
Tal Saar of New York Mold Specialist told Hyperallergic the pictures do appear to show fungal growth, but that lab testing would be necessary to say for sure whether the substance is mold and, if so, what type.
A spokesperson for Alamo Drafthouse said the cinema was unable to comment on the allegations of mold and fruit flies.
“A lot of these health and safety problems come down to the understaffing problem,” said Squitire. “Alamo corporate is trying to cut every corner they possibly can at our location and not support us. One of the ways that money gets cut, one of the first ways, is labor costs.”
Due to chronic short staffing, staff are expected to cover each other’s roles when a coworker calls out, according to organizers. Squitire described a hypothetical situation in which personnel responsible for safety measures like keeping floors dry might be asked to cover for dishwashers, leaving both jobs half-finished.
Allegations of floors slippery with water and grease, a lack of non-slip mats in some areas of the kitchen, and insufficient drainage — all longstanding complaints among back-of-house staff — came to a head the night of August 14, when a server, Calvin Aragon, slipped and suffered a head injury.
“They fell, someone tried to walkie for a manager, and the manager said ‘tell him to come to the office,’” said Squitire. “They were like, ‘Dude, he’s on the floor, his vision is blurry, we’re going to carry him to the break room. Are you insane?’” Hyperallergic was able to reach Aragon, who confirmed organizers’ accounts of the incident.
Alamo declined to comment on the injury allegation.
A message sent via HotSchedules, an app used by staff at Alamo to communicate and schedule shifts, shows an instance in which managers acknowledged the need for more non-slip floor mats, but were not able to buy them due to an unexpected shipping fee.
“In full transparency, our most used supplier has changed to a (no exaggeration) 50% shipping fee suddenly,” wrote the manager. “This is hitting us pretty hard, especially going into slow season. I just placed an order for glassware and mats that was bounced back to us as to add on a hefty $500 shipping fee.”
Brooklyn Alamo workers are seeking to unionize under United Auto Workers Local 2179, a union that also represents seven New York City AMC movie theaters, according to UAW. If Alamo declines to voluntarily recognize the union, workers will need more than half of the bargaining group to vote in favor of unionization.
Will Bobrowski, the second vice president of Local 2179, said he anticipates it will take a few weeks before the NLRB is ready to assign an election date. Organizers are hoping to hold an election by September 4 — Labor Day — but Bobrowski acknowledged it might take longer. He is hopeful that a union at Alamo could win better job security and curtail scheduling abuses at the bargaining table. He also said health and safety improvements could be won outside of collective bargaining if the union presses the issue with city officials.
This is the second unionization drive coming from the Alamo’s Brooklyn location in as many months. On June 7, Alamo projectionists filed to unionize under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 306. Two days later, Alamo management sent a memo to staff announcing the company was replacing the projectionist position with a “technical engineer” role that would take on similar responsibilities.
Alamo has previously stated the decision to scrap the projectionist position was a long time in the works and that the restructuring had nothing to do with the NLRB petition, though the company did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment on this point.
Alamo encouraged projectionists to apply for the technical engineer role, but there were fewer available positions, and those who didn’t make the cut were laid off. Organizers included Technical Engineers as part of the projectionists’ bargaining group, and workers are still pushing to unionize despite the change.
While the projectionists represented only a fraction of the staff at the theater, Squitire is hopeful the sweeping bargaining group organizing under UAW will ramp up pressure on the company.
“Alamo needs employees. Alamo needs people,” he said. “We are not just some expense. We’re not expendable.”