The knights, squires and royal court of Medieval Times in Lyndhurst, New Jersey are preparing for what could be their most consequential performance to date — voting for the first time to join a union.
On Friday afternoon, 42 workers at the Bergen County dinner theater will decide whether to join the American Guild of Variety Artists, which represents performers including the Rockettes and the members of Cirque du Soleil.
The vote follows a national wave of collective organizing and an uptick in unionization rates in New Jersey. Food service workers, retail employees, even budtenders in the medical and recreational cannabis markets are getting organized.
“This isn’t a means of lambasting my employers or us collectively saying, ‘We’re giving you the finger,’” Zaire Wood, 32, a knight at Medieval Times, said. “We’re making a sincere effort, a genuine effort to collaborate with our employers, to help them understand what we feel every day.”
Medieval Times hasn’t yet responded to several emails and calls for comment this week.
The chain operates 10 locations in the United States and Canada. Guests flock to its castle gates for two-hour performances, during which they’re assigned kingdoms and don paper crowns colored in the hues of the knights who champion them. While audience members feast on Middle Ages-style meals, drinking soup straight from bowls and eating chicken with their hands, the knights battle it out in a tournament.
Workers say they want pay that matches the very particular skills needed for the show. Knights perform stunts with sword fights. They ride horses. They joust. And for that, they say, they’re paid hourly, working years to reach $20 an hour.
Some workers also say they worry for the safety of the cast, which has to deal with rowdy audience members who grab performers or scare the animals by banging plates and bowls.
Wood said he wants management to hear the cast members’ concerns, rather than treat them like props.
“We’re here for the spectacle without considering the person behind it,” he said. “Regardless of how out of control the customers may get, we still expect our job to sort it out with the appropriate amount of response.”
‘Unions have become cool’
New Jersey is the sixth-most unionized state in the United States for private and public workers, according to a May report by the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
The report looks at union “density” – the proportion of the workforce that’s unionized – from 2019 through 2021. In what it calls the “pre-COVID” period, 15.74% of the New Jersey workforce was unionized. Post-COVID, that had reached 16.4%.
It also notes that, in general, public sector workers are unionized at a much higher rate than private sector ones. But in New Jersey, “this distinction is more pronounced,” the report says. On average, over the three-year period, nearly 60% of all public sector workers in New Jersey were unionized; just 8.3 percent of private sector workers were.
Todd Vachon, director of the labor education program at Rutgers and co-author of the report, said increases in union rates have been rare since unions began declining in the 1980s and 1990s. He attributed part of the increase to workplace safety activism during the initial waves of COVID-19 — even in non-union jobs.
“A lot of the seeds were planted in those struggles for health and safety concerns,” he said. “And once they felt the sense of collective power, that’s when they came together to ask for changes. They said, ‘Well, geez, if that worked, how about our wages and benefits too? And how about regular schedules and fair scheduling practices?’”
Vachon said that happened largely among service industry workers, like food service and retail workers — “those essential occupations that have always historically not really been unionized and also have not really had great pay and benefits associated.”
Earlier this year, Starbucks locations in Hopewell, Summit and Hamilton voted to unionize, according to National Labor Relations Board data. Workers at the Starbucks in Montclair plan to vote on unionization later this summer, according to NorthJersey.com. Even cannabis stores are seeking to unionize, with employees at two major companies forming bargaining units and four others seeking to follow, according to NJ.com.
Vachon said what’s not clear is whether the resurgence of union efforts is a blip or marks a significant shift in the organized labor movement.
At least 30% of employees at a workplace have to support the petition to form a union for the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election. An employer can also voluntarily choose to recognize a union if the majority of workers support it.
“There’s just incredibly high levels of support for unions among young workers right now, like, unions have become cool,” Vachon said.
Arts, culture, organization
While TV and film actors have historically had unions, Vachon said he’s noticed more organizing efforts in the arts and culture space, such as at museums, which haven’t historically had unions.
Susanne Doris, executive secretary and treasurer of the American Guild of Variety Artists, said she hasn’t noticed a surge in variety groups seeking to unionize, but also said the industry “was the last to come back after COVID.”
“People are in recovery. They are happy to have a job, happy to keep the show open,” she said. “This industry was really the last, even the restaurant came back before entertainment, before live theater.”
Doris said should the National Labor Relations Board, which is overseeing Friday’s vote, certify the Medieval Times union, workers will be able to fight for a contract that will “improve wages, working conditions and health and safety protocols at their loved venue.”
Medieval Times employees said the union will represent the knights, squires, trumpeters and other performers. It would represent the stable hands, who care for the horses, as well. Servers and food staff would not be included in the bargaining unit.
Employees have been active on Twitter, organizing as Medieval Times Performers United. They’ve garnered support from Gov. Phil Murphy and Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat serving the 9th District, where Lyndhurst is located.
“Many historians today recognize the collapse of the ‘medieval era’ as being marked by an act of protest and reform in reaction to corporate corruption,” worker Sean Quigley wrote in a statement posted on Twitter. “In this century, this union will help to usher in a new culture within Medieval Times. A culture of collaboration, respect, equal opportunity and accountability.”
Wood, who has worked at Medieval Times for four years and lives about 15 minutes away in Bloomfield, New Jersey, said he loves his job, he just wants to make sure he and his colleagues are respected, properly trained and compensated and safe.
“The job is one of the most incredible opportunities I’ve had since the Marine Corps,” he said. “It enables you to see people, give people memories. They’ve got smiles. They’ve got food that they’re gonna enjoy.”
Workers will vote in two sessions, from 1-2:30 p.m. and 4-5:30 p.m., on Friday.