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Union to protest Michelle Obama event at Dome amid labor dispute

Former first lady Michelle Obama responds to questions as she is interviewed by actress Sarah Jessica Parker during an appearance for her book, “Becoming” at Barclays Center in New York last year. A stagehand union is set to demonstrate at her Tacoma Dome event Sunday.
Former first lady Michelle Obama responds to questions as she is interviewed by actress Sarah Jessica Parker during an appearance for her book, “Becoming” at Barclays Center in New York last year. A stagehand union is set to demonstrate at her Tacoma Dome event Sunday. AP

An ongoing labor battle is now crossing paths with an upcoming Tacoma appearance by former first lady Michelle Obama.

Obama is appearing Sunday at the Tacoma Dome in support of her book, “Becoming,” in a tour presented by Live Nation.

The tour promoter subcontracts with Rhino Staging for riggers and stagehands. Rhino has been in a lengthy labor dispute with members of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE).

Members plan to demonstrate at the Dome on Sunday and hand out flyers.

Rhino workers voted to organize a union in 2015. IATSE says the company has yet to negotiate “a fair contract.” At issue is wages, health care, retirement benefits and workplace safety.

Jeff Giek, CEO of Arizona-based Rhino Staging, told The News Tribune via email that his company “is actively working toward reaching an agreement with IATSE Local 15 in Seattle.”

The union has demonstrated previously during Dome events, including at last year’s Fleetwood Mac and Drake concerts.

This time, health care has become a key part of Sunday’s organized protest. The union is contrasting President Barack Obama’s health care initiative during his administration with their workers currently without health care.

The union contends many of the workers are involved in dangerous rigging jobs but don’t qualify for Rhino’s medical plan because they are contract workers.

Giek wrote in his email: “Rhino does have a major medical plan. Like most plans, employees must work a certain number of hours each year to qualify.”

In a Jan. 28 letter to Obama ahead of her then-scheduled February appearance (rescheduled for inclement weather), IATSE President Matthew Loeb wrote that the first lady needed to remember the backstage crew when she takes the stage to speak about “your fight for fairness and for health care for those who have gone without.”

The letter also made mention of President Obama’s campaign events staffed by workers with union contracts. Loeb, in a news release, asked her to “consider having a discussion with Live Nation and the Tacoma Dome” to advocate for the workers.

The union said so far it has received no response from Michelle Obama.

The News Tribune’s attempt to reach Obama’s team through a Live Nation representative was unsuccessful Friday.

Bess Sullivan, vice president of IATSE Local No. 15, told The News Tribune on Friday: “We’ve been really supportive of the Obama family and their policies on health care. In most facilities publicly owned you expect a certain standard. I think Tacoma needs to know these jobs are often dangerous and safety is a constant concern.”

Kim Bedier, director of Tacoma Venues and Events, which manages the Dome, told The News Tribune on Friday: “We hold anyone working in our building to the highest safety standards.”

Bedier added that the Dome had not experienced any event disruptions with the group’s previous labor demonstrations.

Giek wrote that his company was a leader in safety and had implemented personal protective equipment ahead of industry requirements.

As for further negotiations, he wrote: “We have reached a number of tentative agreements since January and hope to reach several more in the near future. We have more bargaining sessions scheduled through May.”

IATSE has an online petition and website for those seeking more information: http://standwithrhinoworkers.com/.

Debbie Cockrell has been with The News Tribune since 2009. She reports on business and development, local and regional issues.


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