Inspired by Boots Riley, theater workers organize a union

The Salt Lake Film Society shows independent and international films, hosts entertainment events and rents out its DVD film archive.  Although it presents itself as supporting educational experiences, workers learning how to organize a fighting union was not an educational experience Film Society management had wagered on.

Front-of-house staff sell tickets, serve concessions, operate projectors and clean up theater floors.  At the Film Society, they’re mainly young people, including some who are LGBTQ2S, people of color and women.  

They’re drawn to work in an environment where their cultural interests can connect them to a community that enjoys critical conversations.  On the other hand, their wages have been kept low and they have little say in how things are run.

According to one theater worker, management apparently hopes that workers’ interest in the organization will somehow compensate for inadequate wages. At the same time, they demean them by calling them “the popcorn people.”  Workers’ previous attempts to demand higher wages continually met with management’s dismissive attitude.

When the Independent Spirit award-winning movie, “Sorry to Bother You,”  played in the theater, the front-of-house staff learned by observing the characters — low-wage call center workers — and they mobilized.  After contacting the AFL-CIO, they were put in touch with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. According to IATSE, “Authorization cards went out to the bargaining unit in December, and by the end of February, more than 80% of people had signed on.” (, May 28)

Just as confidence was growing, management began warning the workers not to join the union, spurring doubts in some.  That’s when progressive hip-hop artist, Boots Riley, the film’s director, caught wind of the union in formation and how his film had sparked it.  He made a video of himself giving words of congratulations and encouragement to the workers, saying, “You’re seeing where your power lies and who that will inspire, not just theater workers, but fast food workers … retail workers, so what you’re doing is very important.  I’m inspired.”

The union became official in April.  A representative of IATSE Local 868 Ticket Sellers and Treasurers in Washington, D.C., called to congratulate the new unionists, showing them they’re not alone.  Anti-worker laws like Utah’s “right-to-work” (for-less) will not stop the growing mobilizations of young people organizing fighting unions.

Boots Riley tells theater workers, ‘I’m inspired by you’

Below is the full transcript of Boots Riley’s May 28 video message to Salt Lake City theater workers:

“Hey, what’s up, y’all. This is Boots Riley, writer and director of ‘Sorry to Bother You.’ I want to say congratulations to you theater workers who are coming together forming a union, joining a union, fighting for higher wages and benefits and all of that good stuff. And just seeing where your power lies. And, you know, so much of what you do is, as you know, about getting stories to people.

“And the thing about what happens when people come together and fight, when people, especially when they do that on the job, it starts to tell a story to other people. It’s not just the fight that’s there that exists in front of you; it’s about the story that is being told to millions of other people that will be finding out about what you’re doing. And just even in your local area who that will inspire — not just theater workers, but fast food workers, you know, anyone, you know, retail workers — so what you’re doing is very important. And I’m inspired by you. Thank you so much.”

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