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Workers at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar unionize, ask for COVID transparency

Kelsey Bradshaw
Austin 360

Workers at the South Lamar Boulevard location of Alamo Drafthouse announced on Monday that they have unionized, according to a news release from Industrial Workers of the World.

Industrial Workers of the World is a general labor union representing thousands of workers across the U.S., according to its website. Its member chapters span different industries and companies.

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The South Lamar workers union, called Drafthouse United, on Monday submitted a request to management for voluntary recognition. The request included a list of improvements they want implemented at the Austin-based movie theater chain's flagship location, including: 

  • Increased wages and benefits
  • Paid sick leave
  • Transparency regarding COVID-19 practices and policies
  • Resolution to long-standing building maintenance requests

The American-Statesman has reached out to Alamo Drafthouse management through the company's media representatives. A request for comment was not immediately returned on Tuesday.

Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar workers announced on Monday that they asked management to voluntarily recognize their union, a news release from the Industrial Workers of the World says.

The Drafthouse employees involved, including bartenders and servers, said in the news release that company values have changed at the theater since the coronavirus pandemic began. 

In testimonies posted to Drafthouse United's website, employees Duncan Lott and Zach Corpstein both mentioned the phasing out of buffer seats between guests during screenings as reasons why they wanted to organize. Lott wrote that he is an hourly supervisor; Corpstein's statement does not specify his exact job title.

Corpstein wrote that the buffer seats "began to fall away" quietly: "The seats were re-installed in theaters overnight (badly, in some cases). Guests complained about this lack of transparency – employees, too – but we were in a relative valley of positive cases in Texas and were told by our leadership that we could ‘just move them’ if needed."

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Lott wrote that Alamo Drafthouse was supportive at first, with their manager securing two weeks of paychecks for furloughed employees.  

"In these first moments, we could tell Drafthouse was taking every care to make it as safe as possible," Lott wrote. 

But after the first few weeks of reopening, Corpstein wrote, advance online food orders were no longer mandatory for customers and buffer seating disappeared.

He said in his statement that messages from leadership about coronavirus safety have been "murky at best."

"Many of our staff can cite examples of a co-worker stating that they were in close contact, and told that as long as they weren’t exhibiting symptoms they were probably fine to work a shift," Corpstein wrote.

Like all movie theaters, Alamo Drafthouse has navigated some tumultuous times during the coronavirus pandemic. The company enacted layoffs in 2020, and it filed for bankruptcy in 2021. Alamo Drafthouse has since emerged from bankruptcy following completion of a sale to an investor group that includes co-founder and executive chairman Tim League.

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Though Texas movie theaters were allowed to reopen in May 2020 following initial pandemic shutdowns, Alamo Drafthouse held off and later released a much-touted safety plan. In addition to advance food orders and buffer seats, the protocols included measures like between-show theater sanitization and official requests that guests wear masks inside. (A sign on the cinema's front door still encourages patrons to wear masks, though they are not required.)

In August of 2020, the company's Slaughter Lane location became the first of its Austin-area theaters to reopen, with the South Lamar cinema soon following.

Lott told the Hollywood Reporter that the employees decided to go public with their union after employees in early February sent proposed solutions to management regarding worker complaints. The union claims employees were told to bring up the concerns at future all-staff meetings. 

In Lott's statement on the union's website, he wrote that "it’s hard to find an employee at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at South Lamar that isn’t burned out and suffering. And corporate is unwilling to do anything to help, besides send out messages posturing as if business dying down (because it always does at this time of year) is them giving us time to rest."

Eric Webb contributed to this report.