In a move that has sent shockwaves across the live entertainment industry, the National Ushers’ Union has announced a nationwide strike on all live performances both today and tonight. “Enough is enough,” said John Watgers, head of the union. “We are striking because of poor pay and even worse working conditions.”
The union’s grievances are many, mainly because “[their] issues have been swept under the rug for far too long”. Firstly, there is the issue of minimum wages, which often are barely enough to cover an employee’s trip to and from work, given the short nature of some live performances.
Second, is a lack of suitable protective eyewear for ushers who are constantly exposed to the flash of illegal cameras in venues, and who “have to put themselves in the way of the audience member and their shot, in defence of the sanctity of the stage.” The Julie Fulham Usher’s Trust, Watgers told Theatre People, set up by Ms. Fulham herself after she was permanently blinded, was not as well funded as the Actor’s Benevolent Fund, nor should it “even be necessary if proper conditions were met”. (Ms. Fulham was injured in a tragic mix-up whereby a busload of safari tourists were accidentally dropped off at a performance of The Lion King, and refused to stop taking photographs. The Trust was founded to take care of ushers who through workplace injuries could no longer perform their duties.)
Above: The emotion portrayed in this photo could not be further from the truth.
Third, Watgers takes umbrage with the lack of recognition of the psychological trauma that affects many ushers forced to watch emotionally triggering shows over and over again, in a process that “can only be described as torturous”. “One of our girls,” he says, “was never the same after a three month stint on King Kong. She’s gone to live in the jungle now, devoting her life to the conservation of ape habitat – we nearly cried when she handed in her resignation. The Union prefer our ushers to be kept quite literally in the dark, never did we realise a musical could inspire one of our members to abandon the noble cause that is theatre and dedicate themselves to something as frivolous as saving the environment.”
The live entertainment industry itself has reacted with a mixture of anger and disbelief. Samuel Noot, president of the Australian Theatres Board, says that “shows around the country will go on.” “Yes, patrons may have to find their own seats, but we believe it will be a relatively painless process, and will just go to show that ushers are being paid at a level commensurate to their talents. We will not be threatened by a group of people who can’t even rip tickets neatly down the perforated line ninety percent of the time. We will weather this blackmail until the NUU sees sense.”
Watgers is not convinced, though, “While we understand that many audience members may feel a certain sense of disorganisation and chaos at performances tonight, we feel that it is the only way to put pressure on the ATB and their subsidiaries. The strike will only be for one day, so that our issues can be heard. We hope theatregoers will be supportive.”
Interval drinks and snacks, which also come under the purview of the NUU, will not be served at performances tonight either, from what we can gather, so Theatre People recommends making sure you take enough supplies to stay hydrated. We would like to estimate that performances will run at least 20 minutes long tonight, as we are not confident that patrons will be able to find the right entry door, let alone the seat assigned to them.
More on this unfolding story as it comes to light.