Stagehands union pickets Walnut Street Theatre over two firings

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Walnut Street Theatre

Picket lines were scheduled in front of the Walnut Street Theatre on Wednesday afternoon, after the theater fired two stageworkers over Labor Day Weekend under circumstances union officials called unfair.

Members of Philadelphia Stagehands Local 8, a 750-member branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, were set for what union leaders called an “informational picket line” in front of the theater after Monday’s firings of head carpenter Cornelius Degroot, 34, and head flyman Jacob Goddard, 35. Wednesday’s show was the press preview night of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which kicks off the 2017-2018 season at the Walnut.

“We will be putting up an informational picket line at 5 p.m. to inform the public of the Walnut’s discriminatory and retaliatory actions in regard to these two men,” said Michael Barnes, president of the local union. Barnes added that the action was about more than just these two cases, that there had been a pattern of arbitrary firings at the Walnut “for a long time.”

According to Barnes, Degroot had been summoned to a meeting and was fired after he requested that a union representative accompany him to it. “In so doing,” Barnes said, “the Walnut has violated his Weingarten rights,” referring to the 1975 National Labor Relations Board v. J. Weingarten, Inc. ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court found there that employees had the right to have a union representative present at meetings with the employer investigating the employee’s conduct.

“We see this as retaliatory,” Barnes said. “He was sent home when he asked for a union rep. When we asked the theater, they said he was being fired for abandoning his job.”

Officials of the Walnut have not returned repeated phone calls asking for comment.

Degroot said he was “dumbfounded” when, on Sept. 2, he was asked to attend a meeting with management. He alleged that when he requested that a union representative be present, he was told to “just get your bags and get out.” He came up through the Walnut’s apprentice program and has worked in some capacity with the theater since 2011, for the last 2 and a half years as head carpenter on stage.

Goddard said he had been working “80 hours straight” on the set of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which has been running since Sept. 5. “I had a head injury when I was younger,” he said, “and when I am fatigued I sometimes have aphasia, which affects my speech. I was getting a little wobbly, they asked me how I was, and my answer was a little disjointed. They told me to go home and feel better, but then I found out I’d been fired.”

Barnes called Goddard’s treatment “straight-up discrimination,” saying that theater notified the union that Goddard was “terminated for failing to disclose a potentially dangerous condition.” Goddard, who said he has been working in technical theater in Philadelphia for 13 years, added that his condition “has never affected my work before.”

Normally, Barnes said, the union’s normal grievance and arbitration process would be followed, “but we felt that further steps were warranted.” On Monday, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB against the Walnut, and assisted Goddard in filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He said further that the firings “struck our membership as particularly egregious, especially the medical one, and seemed to call for steps over and above the grievance and arbitration process.”