As It Happens

Why Medieval Times staff in New Jersey are trying to unionize

Purnell Thompson enjoys working at Medieval Times. But he'd enjoy it a lot more if the job came with higher wages and better safety protocols.

Rowdy customers and easily spooked animals makes working at the dinner theatre a high-risk job, says organizer

A smiling man stands in a stable with a horse looking over his shoulder.
Purnell Thompson, a stablehand at the Medieval Times in Lyndhurst, N.J., is working to unionize the location. (Morgana Costanzo)

Story Transcript

Purnell Thompson enjoys working at Medieval Times. But he'd enjoy it a lot more if the job came with higher wages and better safety protocols.

That's why he and his colleagues are working to form the dinner theatre's first union at its location in Lyndhurst, N.J. 

"It is 100-per-cent a fun job. We're all very passionate about it," Thompson told As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa. "But just with working with live animals alone, that adds its own dangers into the mix. And again, it's a live performance. There's a lot of moving parts."

Thompson and his fellow animal handlers and performers will vote on July 15 on whether to join the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), a union that represents performers at theatres and theme parks, including Disneyland.

Neither AGVA nor Medieval Times responded to requests for comment from CBC.

Spooked horses and 'overserved customers'

Medieval Times is a Middle Ages-themed dinner theatre company based in Irving, Texas, with nine locations across the U.S. and one in Toronto.

The theatres are designed to look like 11th-century castles, and the performers dress in elaborate costumes and play the roles of knights, kings and queens.

Customers eat a facsimile of medieval-style food, sport paper crowns and guzzle beverages from goblets as they watch a live performance of horseback-riding, jousting, sword-fighting and falconry. 

A brick building, designed to look like a castle, with the words 'Medieval Times.'
The Medieval Times in Lyndhurst, N.J. (Google Street View)

Thompson works at the New Jersey castle as a stablehand. Mostly, he takes care of animals, but he also sometimes rides the horses during performances.

It's a job, he says, that comes with a lot of risk.

"There's also issues with drunk customers — overserved customers — disturbing our animals during the show, putting the knights in danger," he said. 

"They can get very easily spooked just from banging on bowls and plates, and there's only so much you can do at that point to keep your horse under control. Even some of our best riders have been thrown off."

Security is also an issue for performers, he said. 

"They don't have escorts when they're walking through the castle. People have walked up onto the dais and placed their hands on the queen. There's been a lot of instances of physical and verbal assault," he said.

Then there's the matter of compensation. Thompson says Medieval Times performers in Lyndhurst usually start at minimum wage, and don't go much higher.

Those salaries, he says, don't account for the amount of expertise that's required to do the work, especially for those working with animals. 

"I've worked animal jobs that are entry level. This is far from an entry-level animal care job," he said. "Many of the stablehands I work with have a lifetime of experience with horses, and they're doing advanced riding in terms of dressage in the show. And they're being paid the same amount as me."

Riding a wave of unionization

This isn't the Lyndhurst castle's first attempt at unionization. In 2006, they narrowly lost a vote to join the Actors' Equity and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

But the labour landscape has changed a lot since then. The U.S. and Canada are seeing a wave of union organizing, including at Starbucks, Amazon, media outlets, the video games industry and more.

"We've never been able to gather a solid movement," Thompson said. "But seeing a lot of these other companies and places of work, what they've done over the course of the last year or so — and especially recently with Amazon and Starbucks, — it's provided a lot of confidence for people, and we're a lot more united and educated than the previous attempt back in 2006."

But the company is not giving in without a fight.

Medieval Times is currently paying a union-avoidance consultant $3,200 US ($4,120 Cdn) per day, plus expenses, according a U.S. Department of Labor document that was unearthed by Huffington Post.

Thompson says he's been in some of these "captive audience meetings" held by the company to dissuade people from unionizing, and called them "wholly ineffective."

"I'm feeling good about our chances. It seems like everyone's held firm," he said. "If anything, we've swayed a handful of people more over to the side of yes. So I'm confident that once the vote rolls around, everything will come out the union's direction."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate McGillivray.

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