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Medieval Times performers in California unionize following months of debate

William Elliot III, 35, assistant head knight and former magician in Las Vegas, makes the grand entrance as the red knight, along with fellow knights during a show at Medieval Times in Buena Park Friday, June 28, 2013.
Allen J. Schaben
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
William Elliot III, 35, assistant head knight and former magician in Las Vegas, makes the grand entrance as the red knight, along with fellow knights during a show at Medieval Times in Buena Park Friday, June 28, 2013.

From queens and knights to horsemen and squires, the performers of Medieval Times dinner theatre castle in Buena Park, California, voted to unionize Thursday after months of back and forth with the company.

Low wages, dangerous working conditions, and a lack of respect from company management incited performers to fight for more job security and join theAmerican Guild of Variety Artists, which represents some performers at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood, said Erin Zapcic, a union organizer.

Medieval Times puts on two-hour performances inspired by 11th century Spain of jousting, sword fighting, and hand-to-hand combat as guests eat a four-course meal. The cast includes knights, squires, stablehands who handle the horses, show cast with speaking roles, and trumpeters.

How the vote manifested

The vote, 27-18, was a decisive one to the surprise of some performers, including Zapcic, who plays a queen at Buena Park.

The vote marks the end to a nearly four-month journey for performers at Buena Park to unionize due to delays caused by company management, she said.

"The company really used the time to sow the seeds of discord, create a divide within the bargaining unit, and so based off the way things were going and the people we were talking to, even though we started with a super majority of the bargaining unit, there was considerable attrition or at least so it seemed throughout the process," Zapcic said.

Buena Park performers petitioned for a union election on July 22 following the vote at the New Jersey location in July, she said. The Medieval Times has 10 locations across North America, including Atlanta, Ga, Chicago, Il, and Toronto, Ontario.

Medieval Times delayed the union election date by contesting that only Knights and Squires should be allowed in the union, excluding the show cast and stables department, according to Medieval Times Performers United Californiaon Aug. 18. Medieval Times argued that knights and squires do not share a "community of interest" with the show cast and stablehands.

Medieval Times did not respond to a request for comment.

Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament participates in the 126th Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1, 2015.
Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP
Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament participates in the 126th Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1, 2015.

"Medieval Times tried to separate and divide its California workers after it agreed to a single bargaining unit in New Jersey and then lost the election by a lopsided margin," Spivak Lipton LLP attorney Nicholas Johnson said in a statement. "The Regional Director saw through the employer's meritless arguments and correctly found that a single bargaining unit is appropriate."

Medieval Times did not contest the petitioned-for bargaining unit in New Jersey, according to Medieval Times Performers United.

The votes at Buena Park and New Jersey castles have created a domino effect company-wide, as more castles have expressed their interest to unionize, Zapcic said.

A call for higher wages to reflect the danger of the job

Knights perform dangerous stunts that require them to fight with real titanium weapons and throw themselves off horses at 25 mph for the performance, Zapcic said.

These dangerous duties have led to ankle, knee, and head injuries, according to performers in New Jersey, and knights do them all for about $19 to $29 an hour.

"The job will always be dangerous for the guys, but they should be compensated accordingly," she said. "There should be a correlation between how dangerous their job is and how they're compensated."

Those who want to become knights and aspire to go into athletics or become a stunt performer typically start off as squires, who make "essentially minimum wage," Zapcic told the LA Times. A knight who previously worked as a squire at the New Jersey castle made $12 an hour.

The horses and falcon that the show rely on also add an element of uncertainty for workers' safety, particularly for stablehands who can make $16 an hour.

Zapcic compared Medieval Times shows to Broadway shows, seating about the same number of people and putting on more shows a week. They put up to 10 to 16 shows during a normal week compared to most Broadway shows' eight, but the number can go up to 21 between Christmas and New Year's Day. Many knights and squires will have to perform in nearly every show during this busy season.

Upon hearing Zapcic's comparison to Broadway shows, she said Medieval Times management responded, "You're not Broadway. It's dinner theatre."

Zapcic said, "There was a dismissiveness and feeling that the company views us as replaceable and having a union really sets us apart and shows that... we take our jobs seriously and we want to be treated with the same respect."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Ahn
Ashley Ahn is an intern for the Digital News and Graphics desks. She previously covered the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for CNN's health and medical unit and the trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers for CNN's Atlanta News Bureau. She also wrote pieces for USA TODAY and served as the Executive Editor of her college's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. Recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Ahn is pursuing a master's degree in computer science at Columbia University.

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