2021 | Business

Theater union angry over proposal to add kiosks at Strathmore

But arts center CEO says kiosks would supplement ticket sellers, not replace them

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A proposal to add ticket kiosks to Strathmore in North Bethesda as in-person performances return has drawn the ire of a local theater union, which worries that machines would replace employees.

But the arts center’s CEO emphasized that kiosks would supplement ticket office workers, not replace them.

With Montgomery County lifting COVID-19 restrictions, Strathmore is preparing to start holding in-person performances regularly for the first time since March 2020. An outdoor summer concert series kicks off this weekend with a performance by noted jazz artist Wynton Marsalis on Sunday at Strathmore’s patio stage.

Strathmore CEO Monica Jeffries Hazangeles told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that the arts center leadership had one initial conversation with members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) about adding kiosks to supplement ticket office workers.

Hazangeles said kiosks would not replace ticket office workers, but would give a contactless option for customers to print and buy tickets if they have health concerns stemming from the pandemic. Customers could print tickets they purchased online or buy tickets with a disposable stylus.

Hazangeles said the proposal is to lease the kiosks, rather than buy them. She noted that even prior to the pandemic, 85% of tickets at Strathmore were bought online.

“We are trying to make those kinds of contactless options available as much as possible, so that we can invite back as many people as possible,” she said.

In July 2020, Strathmore laid off 19 unionized workers in the ticket office due to the financial strain of the pandemic, prompting the IATSE to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Hazangeles said at the time that every employee at Strathmore had been affected by the pandemic, “whether through layoff, furlough or reduced compensation.”

She said on Thursday that of the 19 ticket sellers, the two full-time workers have been brought back and the 17 part-time workers have been brought back as needed. None of the positions will be eliminated, she said.

“We, of course, are working with our colleagues to continue our negotiations and conversations,” she said. “We really value our employees and the union process. We are not replacing laid-off colleagues with kiosks or machines, but we have been in conversation with the union about a kiosk, in supplement to our staff, to offer an additional accommodation for our patrons.”

But the union doesn’t agree.

Anne Vantine, the business agent for IATSE Local 868 — a theater union that represents workers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and D.C. — said on Thursday that Strathmore is trying to “replace people with kiosks.”

Vantine said Strathmore added the kiosk proposal during negotiations this spring with IATSE.

“They’re saying that because 85 to 96 percent of sales are done online, that they no longer need people,” she said. “And that because of COVID and contactless requirements, that the kiosks are necessary, so that patrons don’t have to touch or interact with a person.

“That is a false narrative, in that there are ways that other venues, including the Kennedy Center, where I work, are putting systems in place, so that we can service the patrons. Because we do feel human interaction is important. And those people who come to the venue to purchase tickets aren’t coming to the venue to use a machine.”

Vantine said that by installing kiosks, Strathmore is not acknowledging the work required by human ticket sellers, even for online transactions.

“A person cannot buy a ticket on the web had a person in the ticketing office not set those events up and put it in place, so that a person can buy a ticket,” she said.

Vantine said that with Strathmore resuming events, more employees, not fewer, will be needed in the ticket office. And human ticket sellers, she said, have capabilities that machines don’t.

“Machines can’t answer their questions. For a piano concert where people won’t be able to see the hands, the machine’s not gonna say ‘in order to see the hands, you want to sit left, where the pianist sits,’” she said. “And there’s a myriad of things like that that only a ticketing professional can answer for a patron, that will give them the seat that they need for their particular desires.”

Vantine said the union doesn’t think that Strathmore intends to bring back all of the laid-off ticket sellers. Rather, the union sees the kiosk proposal as an “attempt to break the union.”

“They’re still upset that their ticket staff chose to be represented by the union. [They] have been difficult since the very beginning. And I think they’re looking to use this as a way to disillusion their workers and break the union if they could,” she said.

Hazangeles disputed that charge.

“It’s just not accurate,” she said. “Our ticket office colleagues and Strathmore staff in general pride themselves on customer service. And exceptional customer service requires great people.

“This would be an additional accommodation for customer service purposes. We are not trying to replace a complement of people with a ticket kiosk. It’s just not possible, nor our intention.”

Hazangeles said that declining revenue the past 15 months has been devastating and caused Strathmore to lay off workers. She hopes more employees can be brought back as restrictions are lifted and events return.

“What we’ve proposed to our ticket colleagues is that we have greater flexibility in scheduling the employees that we have to respond to the fact that we don’t have lots of concerts happening at the moment. We don’t have full use of our facilities quite yet,” she said.

Union protesting this weekend

To help its cause, the IATSE has contacted lawyers, agents and managers of performers, including Marsalis, who are scheduled to perform at Strathmore this summer.

A letter from IATSE International President Matthew Loeb to attorney Brad C. Deutsch, who represents Marsalis, requests that either Deutsch or Marsalis send a letter in support of the union to Strathmore.

“After a prolonged shutdown due to Covid-19, Strathmore, like other arts organizations, need to rebuild its relationships with its audience, which deserves and expects a high level of customer service, not a recorded voice or an automated kiosk,” the letter states.

The union also sent a letter to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which performs at Strathmore.

The IATSE plans to protest outside Strathmore on Sunday just before the start of Marsalis’s concert. It plans to place a large inflatable rat along Rockville Pike to symbolize what the union feels is “disgusting and despicable behavior” by Strathmore, Vantine said.

“Anybody driving by or walking by will see it, and hopefully, it will encourage them to ask questions, contact us and find out what’s going on and give us the opportunity to visibly show people that there’s something not right going on here,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com