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Medieval Times union efforts collapse as American Guild of Variety Artists pulls support

Orange County, CA - September 20: The Medieval Times' Buena Park location is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022 in Orange County, CA. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
A union effort among show performers and stable hands at Medieval Times' Buena Park castle is "dead in the water." (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

A beleaguered union effort among show performers and stable hands at Medieval Times’ Buena Park castle has met its end.

The American Guild of Variety Artists, the union backing workers who organized in Buena Park as well as at another location of the popular themed dinner theater in New Jersey, submitted paperwork pulling its support.

The move came after actors in both locations backed petitions asking the National Labor Relations Board to hold elections to remove the AGVA as their union representative. They filed their petitions to decertify the union with free legal assistance from the National Right to Work Foundation, a conservative, anti-union group, which hailed the union's withdrawal as a victory.

“AGVA union officials treated each Medieval Times castle as their own personal fiefdom, but their actions led to an uprising of the rank-and-file they purported to ‘represent,’” National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix said.

AGVA said in an emailed statement that over the course of contract negotiations, a large number of the Medieval Times personnel who had voted to be represented by the union left Medieval Times, making it difficult for the union to continue its role.

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"Without the original support we started with, combined with circumstances beyond our control, it became impossible to continue," the union said, noting that the effort began two years ago at the Lyndhurst, N.J., location and nearly two years ago in Buena Park. "It is with a heavy heart for those seeking industry standard working conditions and wages, that we have sent a letter of disinterest."

The two Medieval Times dinner theaters were part of a wave of organizing in recent years at workplaces not traditionally represented by unions, such as strippers at a North Hollywood bar and baristas at Starbucks locations.

Workers involved in the union allege they were subject to intimidation and retaliation from managers during their nine-month strike last year, as well as in recent months, forcing many to decide to leave the company and shrinking the pool of workers supportive of the union.

Medieval Times did not respond to a request for comment.

Erin Zapcic, who plays a queen at the Buena Park castle and served as a union steward, said that in recent months, Medieval Times unlawfully switched workers' shifts and subjected them to backbreaking menial work — for example, shoveling horse manure for hours at a time.

"Medieval Times has operated as a king lording over his kingdom for its entire 40 years of business. It has never been accountable to anyone, and used a lot of intimidation to make people fall in line," Zapcic said.

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Of some 27 employees who returned to work in November after the strike, fewer than five remain employed at Medieval Times, she said.

Zapcic said that during the strike, Medieval Times went on a hiring spree to replace striking workers and keep the shows going, and it is largely those new hires who supported the petitions to decertify the union.

"I’m heartbroken. I put every ounce of myself, every bit of passion and energy for the last two years into this fight," she said. "We really just wanted to have a voice in the workplace."

"The union is pretty much dead in the water at this point," said William Hainsworth, 55, a former cast manager at the Buena Park castle, who was fired from Medieval Times about a year ago and alleges in a pending lawsuit that he was wrongfully terminated for being vocal in his support for the union.

"I regret nothing," Hainsworth said. "There's a lot of shady stuff going on there."

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Buena Park Medieval Times workers voted to unionize in November 2022, citing low wages and a desire to improve working conditions, including better treatment of animals involved in the show.

In February of last year, workers went on strike when negotiations over wages during contract talks were unsuccessful.

While on strike, workers said they experienced union-busting tactics by the company and violence on the picket line from patrons, and the workers filed multiple unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

Lawmakers called out Medieval Times for the alleged union busting, with New Jersey Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker sending a letter last May urging the company's chief executive, Perico Montaner, to cease union busting activities and negotiate in good faith with workers in California and New Jersey. But negotiations continued to stall.

In November, Buena Park castle workers returned to work, ending their nine-month strike without a contract agreement.

When they returned to work, Medieval Times refused to reinstate three of the striking workers, accusing them of “misconduct while on strike,” according to the union. Among those workers was Jake Bowman, a knight and vocal union activist who had leveled allegations of horse abuse at the castle.

The union at the time called the company’s decision “blatant, illegal retaliation."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.