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Gaming Guru

Steve Tetreault

Next Blue Man Group act: Bargain with union

13 June 2008

WASHINGTON, DC -- The Blue Man Group has been ordered to the bargaining table after an appeals court sided with federal labor officials and the Las Vegas union local that has been seeking a contract for stagehands at The Venetian show.

The ruling Tuesday could be a final turn in a labor dispute that has been ongoing since 2005, when the performance group moved its show from Luxor. Blue Man refused to negotiate after stagehands voted in the union, IATSE Local 720.

The production company argued that the May 2006 election where the union prevailed 20-14 was not legitimate because it did not include six crew members who maintain the show's eclectic musical instruments.

But a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit backed the union and the National Labor Relations Board, which had declared Blue Man Group's refusal to bargain an unfair labor practice.

In an 18-page decision, Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote that the NLRB, which had approved the makeup of the voting unit, "was certainly reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." The labor board had concluded the job of musical instrument technician was different in nature from other stagehands. Further rejecting Blue Man's case, Ginsburg added in a footnote that the employer's "other arguments are sufficiently lacking in merit as not to warrant consideration in a published opinion."

The chief spokeswoman for the Blue Man Group was overseas and could not be reached Wednesday. The Blue Man production office in New York was unable to supply another representative for comment on the ruling.

IATSE is shorthand for the union's formal name: The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, its Territories and Canada.

John Hanson, business representative for Las Vegas Local 720, said the union hopes to begin talks soon on behalf of roughly 40 stagehands who keep the show moving from backstage.

The Blue Man Group could try to persuade the Supreme Court to take up the case.

However, Hanson said, "I doubt they would hear it.

"Now they should come to the table in good faith and bargain," Hanson said. "We just want to negotiate fair terms and conditions and a good livable wage for everyone and get these folks a guarantee of employment."

Hanson said the Blue Man Group fought "because they thought this could be the first domino of many" to unionize. The company runs shows in New York, Boston, Chicago and Orlando, Fla., in addition to Las Vegas.

Union difficulties were blamed in part for the Blue Man Group closing its Toronto production in 2007 after 18 months.

The appeals court granted the NLRB's application to enforce the ruling. The agency will monitor the negotiations and could return to court to have the employer held in contempt if it continues to refuse to bargain, said Mike Karlson, an NLRB regional attorney in Phoenix.

The court's ruling solidifies the stagehands local at The Venetian, where it also represents crew members of "Phantom -- The Las Vegas Spectacular."

Hanson said the local recently signed to represent stagehands for "Jersey Boys" at the Palazzo, The Venetian's sister resort.

The Venetian and the Palazzo are the only Strip resorts with a nonunion work force. But all shows at the resorts are basically lease agreements for the theater space between the hotel and independent producers who own and manage the shows.

Restaurants at the two resorts are also leased to various entities, so those places may employ union staff, but it's up to the individual tenant. Las Vegas Sands Corp. spokesman Ron Reese said he does not know the policies of each tenant.

The Sands Expo and Convention Center often uses union workers to change out various trade shows.

At Luxor, the stagehands union negotiated with the resort. But when the Blue Man Group moved to a custom 1,760-seat theater at The Venetian in October 2005, it erected a new management structure and employed its entire stage crew directly.