Why we are organizing
My name is Zach Corpstein. My friends call me Corpse. I have worked for Alamo Drafthouse since October of 2017. I am not the most tenured employee, by far, but I am one of the driving forces behind organizing the Alamo Drafthouse at South Lamar, and I feel I must explain why.
Before the events of 2020, corporate and management had a reputation for poor communication. This was, unfortunately, something taken for granted at the point that I joined the company. But due to the high volume of business and the large number of employees needed to run an operation so large, it also could be hand waved away as simply a difficult task. The Drafthouse had its issues, but I also thought it was also a wonderful place to work. I loved my fellow employees, watching movies all day, and the people who came to appreciate cinema.
As you probably know, the pandemic has shaken the business to its core. South Lamar was closed down for over 6 months. Some employees came around occasionally, some deep cleaning was done, and as summer begrudgingly trudged into fall, chairs were physically removed from theaters to allow for buffer seating. While we were closed, I enjoyed time with my infant son and wife. We collected unemployment during this time, taking the opportunity to spend quality time together. We also paid for provisional health insurance, a whopping 1200-ish dollars a month, while on lockdown. This was the biggest contributing factor to me eagerly saying yes to returning to work when I got the call in early October of 2020.
Before re-opening, there were all-staff meetings with our general manager, Ryan Schibi. We stressed the importance of staff AND guest safety, discussing the move to all to-go plates in the theater to minimize contact, the newly uninstalled seats, and the institution of online ordering. There was to be a culture of holding each other accountable with masks and gloves to make sure that everyone felt safe and that there was an atmosphere of severity about the virus that the guests could clearly see right from the outset. We also stressed the need for teamwork among the smaller staff size, and although individuals were spread thinly, the practice of always keeping an eye out to help one another carried us through these slow months. With so few people attending the movies, we instituted a system of tip pooling where we all would contribute as we worked together to make it back to ‘normal’. I paid anywhere from ⅓-¼ of my weekly paycheck to insurance premiums. Our 401k and other benefits were frozen for a time. But again, we were working to make it back to normal.
We worked through peaks and valleys of cases; through the releases of Tenet, WW1984, Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Eternals, and Spiderman. As time went on, we saw gradual changes coming from corporate. In the first couple of weeks of re-opening, online ordering wasn’t mandatory, and employees were encouraged to stand as far away as they felt comfortable in order to take a guest’s order. (Ever tried asking somebody to shout in their mask?) Around Christmas, we didn’t need to wear gloves for 100% of service. Then, quietly, buffer seating began to fall away. The seats were re-installed in theaters overnight (badly, in some cases). Guests complained about this lack of transparency–employees, too–but we were in a relative valley of positive cases in Texas and were told by our leadership that we could ‘just move them’ if needed. When we questioned this (I’ll use a quote from an email sent out from corporate to every employee), we were told, “It is extremely important that we send the message to our guests and our studio partners that we are here and committed to the success of the industry.”
Despite the implication otherwise, I AM committed to the success of the industry, as are all my Drafthouse coworkers from the kitchen, attendants, bars, and concierge. But I wish to do so in a way that embraces our current struggles and strives to improve everyone’s position equitably. The current pay structure is defunct with a larger staff. This has contributed to an understaffing issue that threatens to burn out every employee that helped to re-open South Lamar. The vicious cycle is fed by churning new employees through training quickly and throwing them into situations that are normally reserved for veterans. It has led many of them to swiftly quit due to stress. Leadership has said that ‘tip pooling is working for most locations, except Austin and San Antonio.’ Perhaps because Alamo Drafthouse locations in other states are also forced by state law to pay a higher hourly wage to their employees. For example, in Colorado the same employees make $9.30 per hour in addition to tip pool. The cost of living in Denver, home to multiple Drafthouse locations, is similar to that of Austin.
The messages from leadership regarding COVID cases have been murky at best. When it comes to exhibiting symptoms or having close contact with a positive case, the immediate staffing needs consistently take precedence over the wellbeing of the staff themselves. Many of our staff can cite examples of a co-worker stating that they were in close contact, and told that as long as they weren’t exhibiting symptoms they were probably fine to work a shift. This is exacerbated by the lack of strong leadership from upper management about keeping our theaters safe, as employees and guests are exposed more frequently in unsafe environments. There is also not enough payment for the employees who test positive and need to quarantine, and no incentive for keeping fellow co-workers safe.
Our aim in unionizing is not to submit a list of demands to Alamo Drafthouse’s Corporate offices, but one of proposed solutions, so that we can work together to create a better future.
To whom it may concern,
My name is Duncan Lott, but most people at work know me as Duncle. I’ve been at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar since August of 2016. I loved working there, and have done my best to Foster Community amongst both my fellow employees and the guests who come in and see us loving the place, the job, and the environment. Recently, however, my love of the Drafthouse has soured, as I no longer feel the company Gives a Shit about their employees (or their guests). As such, I feel it is my responsibility to Boldly Go, to organize an industry that is seeing a rise in organization in a state that tries to put it down. In doing so, I hope to influence the company to Do the Right Thing. Before I go into my reasoning, I feel I should give some background on myself and my role there. I started there as a runner, and quickly moved up to server (as I transferred from another Drafthouse franchise with server experience). I then trained as a bartender and shifted to being mainly bar. I then was trained on concierge, and then finally I was promoted to an hourly supervisor. While I’m not privy to everything that salaried managers are, I’m in a position where I can see much of what happens in the building and where the wind is blowing.
Even before being ravaged by the pandemic, I could see the company starting to take a turn for the worst. As the company expanded, naturally it became more corporate. This is to be expected, but it was the start of the suffocation of culture, community, and morality at the Alamo Drafthouse. Corporate began disregarding the locations and markets and employees it had to expand elsewhere- in 2019, Alamo Drafthouse opened 4 locations nationwide. Meanwhile, we had maintenance requests denied, raises denied, staff appreciation parties denied, (and more, but I can’t remember things we asked for from 3 years ago, apologies) because “we don’t have the money”.
Cut to the pandemic. I will admit, Drafthouse took care of us for a minute there. If memory serves, our General Manager secured us two weeks of paychecks, for everyone who was furloughed. But then the months ran on, and unemployment was supplying a decent living. I thrived during this time, honestly- without spending energy on a job, I was able to work on my own projects that I had a passion for and enjoy time with my family that I was quarantining with. But I still became restless. I couldn’t stand such a sedentary life for much longer. And then Drafthouse reopened and I got the call. I couldn’t be happier to come back.
In these first moments, we could tell Drafthouse was taking every care to make it as safe as possible. Guests were supposed to order online, so there was minimal guest-to-employee interaction as possible, we were told we could stay far away if people needed to talk, we were entirely using to-go plates (we didn’t know Covid didn’t stay on surfaces at the time), and we fogged the theaters between each round with a food-safe chemical that could kill the virus. We were all safe and happy and could have fun and enjoy each other’s company again (from six or more feet away).
However, I’ve left out the most important bit. When we first reopened, and for about a year after, we had removed seats to enforce buffering, so that people wouldn’t have to sit next to people that they weren’t quarantining with. Additionally, the Drafthouse website and app enforced this buffer seating as well- it forced you to leave two seats between you and any other purchased ticket (not quite six feet, anyway, but the idea was if they were facing towards the screen and not each other it would be safer, methinks). And this was fine- none of our theaters really sold out ever, anyway. We eventually put the removed seats back in so that the seating choices were less restrictive, but the buffer seating was still in place.
Then Dune happened.
Dune instantly sold out. And, to make matters worse, corporate, smelling the sweet, sweet stink of cash, deactivated buffer seating- without telling employees or guests. This left us scrambling with theaters of over 100 people for the first time, with nowhere near enough staff to take care of them all. Generally we try to keep servers with around 40 guests each- on the Sunday of the weekend Dune released, I had 104 guests in the first round of the day (10 a.m.- I am not a morning person).
We’ve staffed up and are doing better, for sure. But it’s hard to find an employee at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at South Lamar that isn’t burned out and suffering. And corporate is unwilling to do anything to help, besides send out messages posturing as if business dying down (because it always does at this time of year) is them giving us time to rest. Meanwhile we’re begging corporate to reinstate buffer seating, as Austin is in Stage 5 Covid risk, but they won’t. In a company-wide email, this is their response to us asking for them to prioritize our safety
“[I]t is extremely important that we send the message to our guests and our studio partners that we are here and committed to the success of the industry. We want to be the theater of choice in our markets. With our current safety protocols in place, we are literally the safest theater operating today and will continue those practices for our teams’ safety.”
“What are these safety protocols regarding Covid” you ask, my daring reader? Recommending (not requiring) for guests to wear a mask, and providing masks if people don’t have one and want one. End list. Maybe we’re doing contact tracing for employees who test positive, but I’ve worked in close proximity to someone who contracted Covid and was never reached out to about it, so I’m guessing they’re not actually doing much about it. In fact, when I was on a supervisor shift and an employee let me know they had tested positive, I asked one of the corporate higher-ups who happened to be at the venue what I should do. He said “Just text your GM, he’ll get to it. Yeah, rapid response isn’t really that important anymore.” We had around 10 cases come through the building that week.
I have decided to unionize because I love the Alamo Drafthouse, and it deserves to be a place that’s worth working for. But it stopped being a place that’s worth working for when it stopped Giving a Shit about its employees and guests. It stopped being a place that’s worth working for when it stopped Fostering Community and became an unsafe place to spend downtime. It stopped being a place that’s worth working for when it stopped Boldly Going and decided to be another “only the bottom line matters” corporate machine. It stopped being a place that’s worth working for when it stopped Doing the Right Thing. But it can be again. I have no list of demands for Alamo Drafthouse Corporate. But Drafthouse United has a list of proposed solutions.
I’ve been a runner at the Alamo Drafthouse since December of 2015. I eagerly joined the team as a young and passionate movie buff. My first non-training weekend was during the opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Although the work itself was often hard and stressful, there was a sense of pride radiating from pretty much everyone in the building that made it all worth it. I didn’t have to be a Star Wars fan to feel the love as I watched eager fans lining up outside and families decked out in fancy costumes walking hand in hand to share the experience.
But the thing that really made me happy to work at the Alamo Drafthouse was the people I worked with. Having come from a retail job where nobody cared about much except getting to the end of the day, I felt an immediate difference in the atmosphere when I walked into the back of house area on my first day. The people in that building loved movies, loved each other, and loved doing what they did. They didn’t have to pretend to be invested in creating a great experience for their guests. They gave a shit about the company they worked for, and they wanted to make it great. They were proud, and I couldn’t help but be proud with them. I loved telling people I worked for the Alamo Drafthouse. I was eager to bring my friends to movies and let them experience a place that felt almost like a second home to me. Over the years, however, the staff’s pride has been gradually chipped away by a company that makes us feel unheard and uncared for. Through leadership changes, pandemics and slow seasons, poor communication from corporate to management and staff has only gotten worse, the demand of the job has only gotten higher, and the amount we are compensated for our loyalty and labor has decreased.
These issues didn’t start with our return to business after the peak of the pandemic. For as long as I’ve been with the Drafthouse, “better communication” has been a broken-record phrase among the staff. The employee happiness surveys and case management hotlines that upper management has given us as a way of voicing our concerns do little to fix the issue. We rarely hear back from them directly. Most of our communication from upper management has been through all-staff meetings with little opportunity for us to speak up, and one-sided mass emails to all venues. They congratulate us on how much money we made for them during the run of the latest blockbuster while we all struggle just to pay our bills. They frame the inevitable February slow season as them giving us a “much needed break” while we look for second jobs to make up for the loss of hours that our current pay rates won’t make up for. They tell us they’re doing away with things that are essential to our job functionality and safety, ignore our near-unanimous protests, and blame it on the need to cut costs while we watch article after article pop up about all of the new locations they’re opening. Like everyone else on the floor, I was placed on furlough during the Drafthouse’s months-long closure in 2020. Despite all of the issues I’d had with them, I reached out to return to work a couple of months into their re-opening. It was a job I was already good at that offered health insurance to full-time employees, which was something I definitely needed. Pretty soon, without asking, they made me a shift lead for the runner staff. This meant that a major part of my job would be to guide everyone on the runner staff through the shift, communicating expectations for the day based on ticket sales, scheduling when runners would need to help clean theaters and when the best windows were for taking their breaks. I was also tasked with training new runners. Shift leading duties are given only to the most competent and senior members of the running staff. However, “shift lead” is not an officially recognized title, meaning that those of us who prove ourselves to be the best at our jobs are given more responsibilities and higher job demand with no reward or compensation.
I didn’t object to training and shift leading. It was stressful and I wasn’t fully comfortable doing it, but I knew our staff numbers were low after the reopen, and there weren’t that many people on staff who could do it. My team needed me, and I needed a job and the health benefits that I had been told I would receive from it. So I did the extra work to the best of my ability and didn’t complain.
My breaking point came six months into my return, when I was told that I would not, in fact, be receiving any health benefits because my average number of hours over the six-month lookback period did not meet their requirement of 30/week. I tried to reach out to my general manager and HR to see if they could make an exception. Hours for runners are often very irregular. On a slow day, you can be called in and then told to go home two to four hours later. Due to continued COVID-19 concerns and fewer people coming to the theater, there were a lot of these slow days when I first returned, which affected my average over those six months. I also didn’t realize that the PTO I had used would not be taken into account when calculating my average hours worked. I expressed that I had been a reliable, hard-working employee for six years of my life, taking on extra duties as needed and giving it my all whenever I was on the clock. I thought, perhaps, that they would grant me some leniency due to the circumstances of the pandemic and the years of hard labor and loyalty I have given them.
I barely got a response from HR. I had to email them multiple times over two and a half weeks to even get them to tell me what my average hours over the lookback period were. Even then, the number they gave me didn’t make sense. They gave me a phone number to call. I left a voicemail that they never replied to. This bare-minimum communication made it clear to me that no one with the power to help me had any actual interest in doing so. It felt as though to them, this situation that had the potential to do major, lasting damage to my life and the lives of my family members was just another chore to be swept under the rug.
At that point, I had no fight left in me. Over the years, I’d watched my coworkers engage in months-long battles with upper management over their benefits and other pressing workplace concerns, often to no avail. Given how much the workplace environment had deteriorated, it wasn’t a battle I had the energy for. Many of the people who had once made the place fun, vibrant and full of passion for cinema had lost all motivation and hope. Most of them had been worn down by the increased demand of the job without compensation and their constant, fruitless attempts just to have their voices heard and their basic needs met. Those who hadn’t quit walked through the building burnt out and unmotivated. After years of having our needs pushed aside, the staff was increasingly losing faith that the Drafthouse had their best interests at heart. The passion was gone, and with it, so was the heart of the Alamo Drafthouse.
As a trainer, I see young new hires come in every week who are motivated, full of enthusiasm, and eager to join the team, just as I was when I was first brought on board. I can’t help but feel a little sad as I show them the ropes, wondering how long it will take for them to realize that no matter how hard they work and how loyal they are, the company they love has very little interest in prioritizing their needs. It took me a couple of years. Lately, I’ve seen it take new employees as little as a week, leading to much higher turnover rate and difficulty getting properly staffed.
Upper management is going to try to convince both the staff and the public that these are issues that can be dealt with without a union. I’ve worked there long enough to see that this is not the case. We’ve been screaming about issues like base pay and wider benefits coverage for years. We’ve had important maintenance needs ignored for weeks to months. Since the pandemic, many of our benefits have been stripped away (ex: decreasing our PTO accrual rate to a ridiculously low amount, no longer making up for loss of pay when tipshare drops below our supposed $15/hr base rate). Only when we went public in a way they could no longer ignore did they start making a show of coming in, being friendly, scheduling staff meetings and fixing very basic maintenance issues that had been long neglected.
This is a cycle that I’ve seen many times over the years. We speak up and do something that threatens their public image, they try their hardest to make it look like they’re going to finally listen and change things, they shut us up, give us the bare minimum, and then gradually go back to their old ways.
So why are we unionizing? Because we want them to know they can’t shut us up anymore. The only way forward is for them to start actually working with the people who make their business what it is. Actually hearing us instead of just trying to make us feel heard. Caring when employees express their lack of basic needs instead of seeing our complaints as a nuisance. We need a new system where the heart of the Alamo Drafthouse, the staff, are treated as such, and frequently collaborated with in order to ensure that they can happily and efficiently do their jobs and live their lives. That is what this union hopes to achieve, and that is why I am in full support.
For the amount of time I’ve worked at Alamo Drafthouse, I’ve seen changes both good and bad, pre and post-pandemic. No establishment is perfect, but I always felt that other than my awesome co-workers, and management that I got along with and felt appreciated by (which was a first in a long time), I felt it was overall a company that “gave a shit” and appreciated the hard work of its employees at its various venues. I felt we were heard by our higher ups, at least majority of the time, and there was sense of transparency, between employees at the venues and corporate.
When I came back during the pandemic, that feeling definitely went away. As if a wall was built between the pre pandemic and the present, all the employee concerns and complaints were hitting said ‘wall’, and falling on deaf ears. Upon returning, I heard one employee after another, either say something about PTO being lost, issues with benefits such as insurance, refusal of sabbatical that was earned well before the pandemic started, lost wages, etc. Employees would email corporate, but would either get no answer at all or be left “on read” for weeks and sometimes months.
On top of that, the training process for new employees was to put it lightly “chaotic”, which led to continuous high turnover-rates and leaving veteran employees to bear the brunt of constantly being understaffed. Then to add insult to injury, during the time COVID variant Omicron was ravaging the entire world, including Alamo, the safety of the employees was in jeopardy, because Alamo had taken away buffer seating and mask mandates by then. Many employees asked to return to the old protocols but Alamo refused to implement it back, even when Austin was in Stage 5 of infection rates/cases/hospitalizations, which led to many of the staff being affected by COVID.
These are just some of the myriad of issues at the Alamo Drafthouse Lamar venue. I’m not revealing this to “attack” this establishment. I’m revealing these issues, because of the hurt and disappointment, not just felt by me, but also other co-workers who have worked, dedicated, and given years and years of their time and effort to a place they care for, and some even call a second family. This is why I’m joining the unionization of Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar employees. Because, we give a shit about Alamo and we demand that corporate give a shit about us.