photo of John Anderson
Tensions between workers and management at Alamo South Lamar — the flagship site of the Alamo Drafthouse chain — reached new heights last week as labor organizers at Drafthouse United staged a strike. The union has now claimed that one of the organizers was fired in retaliation for the protest.
A little after 3:30 p.m. on July 5, Drafthouse United’s Twitter account announced that the June 30 deadline they had set for management to award raises that would provide staff with a living wage “or at least a plan of action clair” had passed without a clear answer. As a result, the staff would come out (later they clarified it was a work stoppage) and ask patrons who held tickets to the screenings that night to request a rain check. The following day, server Simon Ingrand was fired after management claimed he used a company database to obtain employee contact details to organize the walkout – a claim he denies. (As of press time, the Alamo had not commented on either the union or his firing.)
Drafthouse’s organizing effort began last year when staff contacted the Austin chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World, and they officially announced their decision to form a union in February of this year. Zach “Corpse” Corpstein, an organizer and server for Drafthouse United since 2017, estimated that about two-thirds of South Lamar’s roughly 130 employees have joined him. However, the Drafthouse has yet to voluntarily recognize the union, and Drafthouse United is not actively seeking an election held by the National Labor Relations Board to demand recognition. “In our eyes, it gives bosses more time to strategize or go broke,” said Corpstein, who added that staff who took part in the work stoppage faced disciplinary action.
Drafthouse United said Alamo management engaged in informal, small-group meetings with staff rather than speaking directly with union organizers. Katie Ward, part-time server at Alamo South Lamar and member of the Drafthouse United organizing committee, said: “Every month or so a member of management will offer to set up a private meeting limited to certain staff members to hear complaints. Although some of these staff members are public union members, these were not union bargaining meetings and they did next to nothing to improve working conditions.”
Initially, the union was asking for discussions with management on a wide range of employment issues, including staffing levels and the decision – after South Lamar reopens in 2021 – to have server pool tips. However, over time the group refocused on wages, with Drafthouse United asking for an immediate raise of $4-5 an hour across the board. Corpstein noted the union had “weighed the pros and cons” of moving away from tip pooling, “but it would be a lot of bureaucracy to restructure that,” so they focused on using salary base as a way to improve take-home wages and tackle their understaffing, which he called “anywhere between ‘desperate’ and ‘badly'”.
The union is proposing a minimum wage of $20 an hour for salaried employees, rising to a starting wage of $26 an hour for supervisors. As for employees who are part of the tip pool, their target is $6 per hour for new servers, rising to $8 per hour for experienced staff. Ward said last week’s action came after months of pay restructuring promises from company offices, and Corpstein noted the problem appears to be the company’s new management in place. since founder Tim League stepped down as CEO in 2020, to be replaced by the former Starbucks. Shelli Taylor, and the 2021 sale of the chain to existing majority shareholder Altamont Capital Management and new investor Fortress Investment Group LLC.