Medieval artists in California are unionizing after months of debate

From queens and knights to horsemen and squires, performers at the Medieval Times Dinner Theater Castle in Buena Park, California, voted to unionize Thursday after months of back-and-forth with the company.

Low wages, hazardous working conditions and a lack of respect from management prompted cast members to fight for job security and join the American Guild of Variety Artists, which represents some cast members at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood, said Erin Zapcic, a union organizer.

Medieval Times features two-hour performances inspired by 11th Century Spain with tournaments, sword fights and hand-to-hand combat while diners enjoy a four-course meal. The cast includes knights, squires, grooms who tend the horses, show cast with speaking roles and trumpeters.

How the vote manifested itself

The vote, 27-18, was crucial to the surprise of some cast members, including Zapcic, who plays a queen at Buena Park.

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

“The company has really used the time to sow discord, create a rift within the negotiating entity based on the way things are going and the people we’ve spoken to, even though we started with an overwhelming majority of the negotiations unit, there was significant wear and tear throughout the process,” said Zapcic.

Buena Park artists filed for union elections on July 22 after the New Jersey site voted in July, she said. The Medieval Times has 10 locations across North America including Atlanta, Georgia, Chicago, Il and Toronto, Ontario.

Medieval Times delayed the date of the union elections by denying that only knights and squires should be allowed in the union, with the exception of the show performers and stables department, according to Medieval Times Performers United California on August 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.

“The Medieval Times sought to separate and split its California workers after agreeing to a single bargaining entity in New Jersey and then losing the election by a lopsided margin,” said Nicholas Johnson, attorney for Spivak Lipton LLP, in an explanation. “The Regional Director saw through the employer’s unfounded arguments and correctly concluded that a single bargaining unit was appropriate.”

Medieval Times has not contested the requested New Jersey bargaining unit, according to Medieval Times Performers United.

The votes in Buena Park and New Jersey castles have had a domino effect company-wide as more castles have expressed interest in unionization, Zapcic said.

A call for higher wages to reflect the dangerous nature of the job

Knights perform dangerous stunts that require them to fight with real titanium weapons and throw themselves off horses at 40 km/h for the performance, Zapcic said.

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

“The job will always be dangerous for the boys, but they should be rewarded accordingly,” she said. “There should be a connection between how dangerous their job is and how much they are paid.”

Those who want to become knights and aspire to enter track and field or become stunt performers typically start out as squires earning “essentially minimum wage,” Zapcic told the LA Times. A knight who had previously worked as a squire at the New Jersey Castle was making $12 an hour.

The horses and hawks that the show relies on also add an element of uncertainty for the safety of workers, particularly stable hands, who can make $16 an hour.

Zapcic compared the Medieval Times shows to Broadway shows, seated about the same number of people, and hosted more shows per week. They host up to 10 to 16 shows in a typical week compared to eight on most Broadway shows, but the number can rise to as many as 21 between Christmas and New Year’s. Lots of knights and squires to appear in almost every show this busy season.

Upon hearing Zapcic’s comparison to Broadway shows, she said Medieval Times management replied, “They’re not Broadway. It’s dinner theater.”

Zapcic said, “There was a rejection and a sense that the company sees us as replaceable, and having a union really sets us apart and shows that … we take our jobs seriously and want to be treated with the same respect.”

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