Hundreds of locked out stagehands rally at Toronto city hall

About 200 unionized stagehands locked out of Exhibition Place rallied in the summer heat at Toronto's city hall on Tuesday to demand that the city return to the bargaining table.

IATSE Local 58 wants city to return to bargaining, city says it's awaiting response from union

Member of IATSE Local 58 rally at Toronto city hall on Tuesday. The union has been locked out of Exhibition Place since July 20. The lockout means the Canadian National Exhibition, known the Ex, could be behind a picket line. (Paul Smith/CBC)

About 200 unionized stagehands locked out of Exhibition Place rallied in the summer heat at Toronto's city hall on Tuesday to demand that the city return to the bargaining table. 

Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 58, which provides technical and staging expertise for venues at Exhibition Place, marched in a large circle in front of city hall for more than two hours, holding placards and chanting.

"What do we want? A contract. When do we want it? Now," the workers repeated.

The union local, which represents about 450 employees, has been blocked from working at Exhibition Place since July 20. Venues affected by the lockout include BMO Field, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Coca Cola Coliseum and the Enercare Centre.

CNE could be behind a picket line this year

The lockout comes less than three weeks before the start of the Canadian National Exhibition, which is slated to open on August 17, and could mean the Ex is behind a picket line.

"Our battle is not with the CNE. Our battle with the Exhibition Place," Justin Antheunis, the president of IATSE Local 58, told CBC Toronto at city hall.

"Summer is wrapping up and the CNE is fast approaching. We would hope that members of the non-unionized labour community in this industry would not be crossing our picket lines."

The workers say they want the city to return to the bargaining table and they want a contract. (Paul Smith/CBC)

According to the union, the Exhibition Place board asked the locked out workers not to picket until after the CNE had ended, but Antheunis said the union has a legal right to picket the grounds and has begun to do so.

Antheunis said his workers are upset with the Exhibition Place board of governors' plan to bring in its own workers to set up and supervise events, while they still don't have have a contract. Workers haven't had a contract since December of 2017, he added. At issue is contracting out, he said.

Union says mayor won't meet with them

Antheunis said the lockout risks compromising the safety of events at Exhibition Place, because companies are bringing in less-skilled workers to stage events. 

The union had been hoping to confront Mayor John Tory about the situation, but didn't get a meeting on Tuesday. 

"He's avoiding us," Antheunis said.

Don Peat, communications director for Tory's office, told CBC Toronto in an email that any labour dispute is "unfortunate."

"We understand Exhibition Place management have been attempting to constructively bargain, conciliate and mediate with Local 58 over the past several months to modernize their collective agreement to be better positioned to attract new business to Exhibition Place," Peat said.

"Right now, the Exhibition Place board is continuing to await a response, from the union, to their outstanding proposals and the board remains willing to return to the table, whenever IATSE Local 58 is ready to provide a meaningful response to the proposals."

Coun. Mark Grimes, the chair of the Exhibition Place board, agreed, saying the entertainment and convention site is trying to be competitive.

As for the CNE, he said that a "contingency plan is in place and Exhibition Place remains open for business and will continue to operate."

At issue in this labour dispute, according to the union, is the contracting out of work. (Paul Smith/CBC)

Earlier this month, Grimes said the lockout is the culmination of eight months of unsuccessful negotiations with the union, which have had the assistance of a provincially-appointed mediator.

"Exhibition Place has gone through major changes in the last couple of decades, but the collective agreements haven't kept up with that," he said.

"We're not competing worldwide. So, it's very important that we're competing ... and have the best possible rates for our shows, for our stakeholders and our clients."

The last meeting between the board and union was July 15.

According to Antheunis, the union does backstage work for theatre and live performances across Toronto. It has been working at the CNE since before the Second World War.

"Local 58 is the most efficient way of putting on a show on the CNE grounds," he said. "We're the magic behind the theatre."