It's official: The members of United Scenic Artists (USA), the union for theatrical scenic, costume, and lighting designers, has voted to secede from its parent, the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades (IBPAT) and join forces with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The vote count was a stunning 1,929 in favor of secession, with 23 votes against. The announcement was the culmination of several tumultuous weeks of confrontations and legal hearings that have had the theatre community buzzing. For those who came in late, here's the story so far:
April 7: After several months of meetings and discussion, USA mails a ballot to its membership, asking members to vote on secession from IBPAT and joining forces with IATSE. The action is taken without IBPAT's knowledge.
April 14: Michael Monroe, president of IBPAT, arrives at USA's New York office, along with seven others, and announces that he is placing USA under trusteeship. A meeting takes place between Monroe, USA business agent Paul Moore, Cecilia Friederichs, treasurer Warren Jorgenson, and USA's attorneys. After the discussion becomes heated and the IBPAT crew refuses to leave, the police are called.
On the same day, Monroe and his associates appear at the IATSE international office at 1515 Broadway, demanding to see president Tom Short. Also on the same day, members of IBPAT appear at the office of Mike Barnes, business agent of IATSE Local 8, where another confrontation takes place regarding the USA vote.
A letter from Monroe to the USA leadership says, ".the officers and trustees of Local Union 829 [United Scenic Artists] have participated and engaged in violations of Local Union 829's constitution and bylaws and provisions in the General Constitution by encouraging andpromoting secession of Local Union 829 from the Brotherhood contrary to the democratic, financial, and collective bargaining interests of the membership. This conduct is ongoing and requires emergency action so as to protect Local Union assets and property and insure protection of the democratic rights of the Local Union membership."
April 15: The Honorable Richard Owen, district judge, rules that USA's action does not justify IBPAT's attempt at establishing trusteeship. A temporary restraining order is issued that states the following: 1) The trusteeship is vacated. 2) An IBPAT representative is allowed to sit in the USA office as an observer, but may not speak to anyone there. 3) IBPAT may express its objections to USA members only through written communications sent through the US mail. Judge Owen also states, "There are to be no threats by anybody against anybody else under any circumstances."
Most important, in response to the IBPAT argument that USA members have not been adequately informed of any possible disadvantages to secession (especially regarding loss of sick pay benefits and other assets), Judge Owen states, "There has been a lot of disclosure here, contrary to the representations made to me by the Painters."
April 20: IBPAT sends a letter to USA members, alleging that they have been given only one side of the story by USA leadership. Enclosed is a petition that USA members are urged to sign; according to the letter, "It merely asks that you require the USA leadership to disregard the results of the April 7 'ballot' and form a new committee to study the issue and submit a report to the membership before any vote is attempted."
April 23: In a dramatic and closely argued session back in district court, attended by roughly 200 USA members, USA president Beverly Miller offers testimony which makes clear USA's long-standing antipathy towards IBPAT and the steps that USA took towards secession. (When asked by Richard Sigmond, one of IBPAT's lawyers, when USA first made plans for secession, Miller replies, "1919," her deadpan manner causing the courtroom to dissolve in laughter). This is followed by dramatic testimony by Barnes, who recounts how eight IBPAT representatives entered his office on April 14 and threatened to make trouble for him if the IA didn't back away from USA. This was in turn followed by a staff member from the New York IA office who testifies about her encounter with Michael Monroe and his associates, also on the 14th, an encounter that left her feeling strongly intimidated (Sigmond, the IBPAT lawyer, declines to question either witness).
As a result, Judge Owen hands down a ruling that clearly states the following: The USA vote on secession was a democratic process. The IBPAT observer is to be removed from the USA office (although IBPAT may have an observer at the ballot counting). No further threats are to be made. There is no basis for an IBPAT trusteeship of USA.
Also on the same day, USA members receive a "referendum alert" from their union, rebutting the charges in the April 20 IBPAT letter. Among the points made: 1) USA contracts are secure. 2) USA members who are vested are in no danger of losing their pensions. 3) The trusteeship, which Monroe claimed to have voluntarily lifted, was in fact ruled illegal by a federal judge.
April 27: The vote is a remarkable affirmation of the secession plan. "We always felt there was strong support," says Friederichs, "but this is overwhelming. We really felt that this is what the members wanted or we wouldn't have begun this process."
Thus United Scenic Artists embarks on a new chapter of its existence.