Medieval Times workers vote to form first union in company’s history

Staff have long complained of low pay and safety issues being ignored

Richard Hall
Friday 15 July 2022 23:41 BST
A knight of the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament
A knight of the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament (Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament/YouTube)

Performers at Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament in New Jersey have voted to form the first union in the company’s 40-year history.

The knights, squires, stunt performers and stable hands who together produce the nightly show at the Medieval-themed theatre and restaurant took part in the vote at the Lyndhurst location’s castle tower on Friday evening. A total of 26 staff voted in favour of joining the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), and 11 against.

The union drive was launched by staff following years of failed efforts to address low pay, staffing and safety issues with management. It succeeded despite a weeks-long campaign by the company to dissuade employees from voting in favour.

“There is a lot of work to do, but I’m confident we’re going to make this environment much better,” Antony Sanchez, a knight who has worked at Medieval Times in Lyndhurst for nearly eight years, told The Independent after the vote.

The Medieval Times Performers United union thanked the public for an “outpouring of support” in a statement.

“We look forward to working with management to create a fairer, safer, and more enjoyable Medieval Times. Together, we will build a workplace that allows us to thrive while doing the work we love,” the statement said.

The effort at Medieval Times in New Jersey comes amid a wave of unionisation drives across the country, fuelled by a shift in how people view their relationship with their employers as a result of the pandemic. Union petitions increased by 69 per cent in the first half of this year, the most of any year since 2015.

Staff at both Starbucks and the country’s second-largest employer, Amazon, unionised for the first time this year. President Joe Biden has lent his backing to both efforts and to worker organising in general, declaring himself the “most pro-union president in the history of the United States.” Meanwhile, public approval of labour unions is at its highest level since the 1960s.

Before the vote, staff at Medieval Times told The Independent that the company ignored their concerns about safety and requests for better pay, frequently giving them the impression that they are replaceable. Complaints that customers were harassing and allegedly sexually assaulting staff during parts of the show were not taken seriously by the company, they said.

“We tried tackling the harassment and the sexual assault issues with suggestions,” Zaire Wood told The Independent ahead of the vote. Wood has worked at Medieval Times for four years — first as a squire and today as a knight.

“At least once a month a drunk guest could get too comfortable and be confronted but not escorted out. We felt the consequences didn’t match the crime,” he said. “There was no way to communicate [these concerns] without being made to feel uncomfortable. This was a situation where staff would not feel like they would be looked after.”

A job at Medieval Times comes with a certain amount of prestige, and even local fame, which makes them sought after. Some knights have even found viral fame on TikTok. But staff say the company has taken advantage of their passion for the job, and used that prestige as an argument against raising salaries. Concerns about crowd control became more salient during the pandemic, when staff had to be worried about getting sick in addition to everything else. Inadequate staffing has made staff feel overworked and burned out, something they say imperils their safety both in the arena and in the stables.

Founded in 1983, Medieval Times employs more than 2,000 people at nine locations across the US. On a typical night, customers don paper crowns as they take their seats in a huge arena to watch a choreographed live action show in which knights battle knights with swords and lances. The show cast are both actors and stunt people, performing ambitious leaps and acrobatics. The storylines change every 4-5 years, and the current show, which has been running since 2017, is about a Queen and a misogynistic villainous knight.

During the show, the crowd feasts on Medieval-themed food such as roasted chicken and corn, without utensils — to be historically accurate ( although the company also offers “an array of meal options for those who are vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free, as commanded by the Queen”).

Medieval Times was been accused by staff of engaging in union busting in response to the drive. The company hired a “labour consultant” who represents companies that want to avoid unionisation efforts. Staff said the consultant has described himself as a “labour educator” and approached them hoping to change their minds. He is being paid $3200 per day plus expenses for his troubles, according to a document seen by The Independent— a sum of money that further angered Medieval Times staff who have repeatedly had requests for better pay refused.

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