Updated: Jan 20
To improve benefits, safety standards, and even increase pay, performers at the popular Medieval Times Dinner Theater in Lyndhurst, NJ vote to unionize.
By Walter S. Brackett III
The rise of the mercantile class in the Middle Ages led workers to form the first trade organizations, called guilds, to control entry into the trade, maintain standards, protect jobs, and resolve disputes. Over time, these groups would lead to two of the central sociopolitical entities in post war America: the middle class and unions.
The transformation of medieval guilds into modern-day unions has seemingly come full circle with the announcement that the knights, squires, cast, and stable hands at the Lyndhurst, NJ Medieval Times Dinner Theater recently voted to join the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA).
A union representing such diverse performers as Radio City Musical Hall’s famous Rockettes and the performers at Disney’s American theme parks, AGVA is an AFL-CIO affiliated union founded in 1939 to negotiate collective bargaining agreements. As such, the union helps set and enforce salary minimums and conditions of employment, such as safe and sanitary working conditions, health benefits, overtime provisions, travel stipulations, vacation and sick pay, and general work rules.
The attempt by the Medieval Times employees to join a union was not supported by the dinner theater’s management. Like the lords and landowners of old, the executives at the Texas-based company fought hard to hold onto their power over their serfs (sorry; their employees). They even went so far as to hire an anti-union consultant for over $3,000 per day to convince employees not to join the union.
But these attempts proved fruitless when the employees voted 26 to 11 to join on July 15, 2022.
Although increased pay and improved benefits were important reasons why the performers voted to unionize, workplace safety was also a major concern.
Even though tournament combat is simulated, it comes with real dangers. Knights on horseback can be thrown by horses spooked by overzealous (and often tipsy) patrons banging plates and bowls on tables.
In fact, according to jouster Jonathan Beckas (left), he has injured his knee once and his head twice during his two years performing as a knight in the show. Beckas also feels he is not paid enough, given the skill required and the risks he must take to entertain the audience.
Antonio Sanchez, another veteran performer, summed up the feelings of many when he stated, “Being a knight is every little kid’s dream. But I got older, and fun just doesn’t pay the bills.”
According to Reuters, the Covid pandemic and the associated labor shortage, Black Lives Matter movement, and other sociopolitical forces have altered the balance of power between labor and management. This has led to an increase in successful unionization efforts.
The performers at Medieval Times NJ join a growing list of recent unionization successes at other, larger national corporations, including such giants as Amazon and Starbucks. But organizing a union is only a first step; unionized workers often have a long negotiation with management before they get their first contract.
In a note to their New Jersey employees, Medieval Times CEO Perico Montaner wrote, “Collective bargaining is uncertain. It can result in more, the same, or less. There are no guarantees.”
But like the medieval predecessors who joined guilds in the hopes of improving their position in society, the Lyndhurst performers have joined together to seek a better future. It was a successful strategy for medieval guildsmen; time will tell if it will be successful for these modern medieval performers as well.
On July 22, the success of the union vote in New Jersey has led the 50 Medieval Times employees in Buena Vista, CA, another union-friendly state, to submit a petition for a union election to the National Labor Relations Review Board. These employees reported that they have the same concerns as their counterparts in New Jersey, chiefly around added safety and low pay.
The Buena Vista location is the highest grossing and busiest location in the Medieval Times chain. Yet employees there cited lean staffing, leading to employee exhaustion.
Erin Zapcic stated that 16 performances a week was tiring out both the knights on horseback and the horses. Performing as a knight in a medieval tournament requires athletic skill, but as Zapcic stated, “Professional athletes have an off-season. We don’t.”