Jolly Roger talks in-depth about the union fight with Jam
A hulking but gentle giant of a man, Chris Shaw has worked for Chicago concert promoters Jam Productions for 37 years. Most recently the crew chief and supervisor of stagehands at the Riviera Theatre in Uptown, he’s a familiar face to generations of local music lovers, standing in the shadows just offstage, or joking with concertgoers before the start of a show. Most, however, know him by his more fitting nom de rock: Jolly Roger.
As first reported by this blog, Jolly and about 40 other stagehands at the Jam-owned Riv were fired en masse in late September amid attempts to organize under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 2 of Chicago. Jam promotes about 45 shows a year at the Riv, as well as hosting shows at the other venues it owns, the Park West and the Vic Theatre. Stagehands at those venues have so far not attempted to unionize and retain their jobs. (These three venues are unique as mid-sized rooms; the larger arenas and theaters in Chicago are unionized, but smaller clubs up to the level of Metro and House of Blues are not.)
On Wednesday, the Riv’s stagehands gathered outside Jam’s Old Town offices to demand their jobs back, and yesterday, their attorneys filed a response to Jam’s petition to dismiss their petition for a union election. (That document is posted as a PDF below. Other filings in the case so far remain private, accessible only via a Freedom of Information Act request, as stated on the National Labor Relations Board Web page for the case.)
The picketing stagehands were flanked on Wednesday by supporters including former Gov. Pat Quinn, members of the “faith labor action” group Arise Chicago, and the ubiquitous union-busting inflatable rat, which has acquired a new name in this battle, as explained below. The protest received extensive coverage—from The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Reader, and WBEZ, among other outlets—but the labor-rally rhetoric glossed over the specific issues in the fight, as well as obscuring the bigger context of the live music business in Chicago at present.
Founded four decades ago by two hustling young concert promoters, Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat, Jam for years was the sometimes bullying dominant force on the local concert scene. That changed in the mid-’90s with the ascent of Clear Channel, later renamed Live Nation, the monopolistic Hollywood-based global giant that, as documented in one brutal court battle, announced its intention to “crush, kill, and destroy” Jam, as it has many other independent local promoters across the U.S. Now merged with Ticketmaster as well as Texas-based C3 Presents, the company behind Lollapalooza, Live Nation has slowly but surely limited Jam’s share of the concert business to mid-size theater shows. On that level, Jam still reigns supreme in Chicago—though the labor battle may erode its control there, too.
Seeking to shed more light on the dispute, I spoke at length with Shaw/Jolly Roger about all of these issues on Thursday, and the full transcript of our interview follows. Jam’s Mickelson initially told this blog last month, “There are two sides to every story,” but he declined further comment because of legal proceedings. This morning, he emailed the following:
“I am not able to publicly comment about this matter while it is in front of the National Labor Relations Board so please provide us the courtesy to never judge someone by the opinion of another. As Walter Cronkite once said, ‘In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.’ I will be glad to tell that story once this process runs its course with details about the crew that most will find intolerable and inexcusable. Also, you should know that Jam works with union and non-union stagehands and respects the rights of every person to be represented in any manner they choose.”
Q. Jolly, the first question I’ve had is why, after years of working for Jam without union representation, this is happening now?
A. “I’m 67. I don’t know if you know I’m that far up on the scale. So I started talking to some of my associates about taking over the crew call and doing the [lighter-duty] advance work, and I was gonna gradually phase out over the next few years. When people would say what’s your dream job, I’d say, ‘Doing lights every night for Cheap Trick or Los Lobos.’”
Q. There comes a time when you don’t want to haul road cases any more?
A. “Yeah! Realistically, when I do a show at the Aragon, most of the time, I get up at five or six in the morning, and I don’t get home until three or four in the morning.”
Q. I know what you mean: I did a story years ago about the stagehands working a Pantera show at the old World Music Theater, and it was dawn until… well, the next dawn!
A. “Yeah! So anyway, some people that were in between myself and the [Jam] office started saying stuff like, ‘Well, Jolly’s gonna retire soon, then you’re outta here; I want my own people in here’—some of the production staff and building staff. And some of the fellas, we’ve been approached for years about joining with Local 2, amalgamated whatever you wanna call it, and everybody said, ‘It’s okay, everything’s okay.’ But then this stuff started, and Jam lost the rights to the Aragon and Live Nation took it over. Historically, whenever that sort of stuff happens, things change. There were a lot of different reasons moving into this.”
Q. I hadn’t realized that Jam lost the Aragon.
A. “Yeah, Live Nation has taken over the Aragon. They signed an X-amount-of-years deal to take over the building.”
Q. When did that go down?
A. “About a year ago? Chronologically, I can remember what happened on any given day, but I can’t remember when that day was.”
Q. That story has been way under the radar.
A. “Well, it’s not like Jam has been kicked out of there, but Live Nation has first rights and all that kind of stuff. The relationship’s been good with them and all that, but one thing led to another. We’ve always done extra jobs, or as they call it, ‘casual work,’ with the union. Some of our fellows are full-fledged journeymen with the union, and they started at the Aragon 15 or 20 years ago. There’s one guy I know in particular who started out with My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult and now he’s down there on a regular basis. It used to be when I was working with Kansas and Styx in the ’70s that the local wasn’t as friendly to traveling personnel as they are now. It’s a total different attitude now downtown. It’s not saying anything bad about the guys that were there before, it’s just saying their attitude was different and much more old-fashioned.”
Q. The whole concert business used to be a lot different: It was the Wild West, but now it’s as corporate as Walmart or Microsoft.
A. “Yeah! And now the union is much more up to date. They’re big on education, making sure everybody knows what’s going on, instead of just, ‘It’s my cousin Brucie.’ It’s not that way any more.”
Q. I’m assuming that most Live Nation shows and C3’s Lollapalooza are union gigs?
A. “Yes. So the discussions went down, people started talking about it, and at first it started out with a bunch of guys. I went with them to a meeting—it might have been the second meeting, it might have been the third—and I talked with a guy, Craig Carlson, who’s the head of the union. He’s a guy I’ve known literally for 30 years. We talked, and I said, ‘You know, fellas, this is good for the younger guys, but I think I wanna stay with the company.’ And they said, ‘We can understand that, Jolly. You’ve been with those guys a long time.’ Then the next thing I know, we all got fired!
“What had happened is some of the fellas were having things signed—the cards to take a vote [to unionize]—and we hadn’t even gotten to vote when suddenly I got a call from Jerry [Mickelson]: ‘We’ve decided to go in a different direction.’ After 30 years, Jerry? What are you talking about? If something had gone wrong or was going wrong, they should come to people and say, ‘Hey, quit doing this’ or ‘Don’t pick your nose in front of the artists.’ Whatever. But there was none of that, there was just: ‘BOOM! You’re fired.’ They were like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us there was a problem? All you do is complain.’ And I was telling them there were problems for the last five years! But this has led to where we are now.
“You know, Jam doesn’t have an H.R, department, so if something’s going wrong, you don’t have a place to go to anonymously complain and say, ‘This jerk over here is doing this.’”
Q. You said “problems.” What kind of problems?
A. “Lack of raises, the three-hour minimum, health insurance…. I realistically can demand three to five thousand bucks a week if I go on the road and do the kind of job I do. But I maybe made three thousand bucks one week out of the last 200. That didn’t bother me, because it was all family, all this, all that. But when I said to Jerry, ‘You pay me $26 an hour, and everyone else I work for pays me $35,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you $30.’ And that’s right where I personally felt insulted.”
Q. So Live Nation gigs pay $35 an hour?
A. “I’m talking my personal self; I’m not talking anybody else. Because everything is all different, and I only really know my situation. I’ve done one or two union gigs since this went down, and I don’t even have any idea what they paid me. But it’s fine.”
Q. A lot of people covering the story have missed the bigger context. You know my work: I’ve been covering Jam since I arrived in Chicago in 1992. When I got here, they were the 800-pound gorilla, really tough businessmen, and it never seemed as if they’d look like the smaller “good guys.” Now, doing battle with the big corporations of Live Nation/Ticketmaster and C3 Presents, they’re the hometown alternative. They generally treat concertgoers much better, but Chicagoans know where to go when they have a complaint: Jam’s office is right there on Goethe Street. In comparison, you can’t even find a phone listing for Live Nation, and C3 is in Texas. People see Jerry Mickelson and his partner Arny Granat at shows all the time; they know them and talk to them, they thank them and gripe at them. Now, Jerry has always been mercurial, but this fight seems downright boneheaded. Why would he shoot himself in the foot with such bad publicity?
A. “I just think he doesn’t understand the current climate. The current climate, since I became involved, I went to Craig and the other people at the union, and I said, ‘These buildings can’t support the $40 or $50 an hour that the union calls the local standard. These buildings can’t support triple time on Sunday nights. The wages shouldn’t change that much.’ But having said that, there should be some avenue for health insurance, there should be some avenue for some type of retirement fund, there should be some avenue for raises and for education. These are all things that fellows from the union have offered us, and they’ve followed through with them, because at least five of our guys have taken certification tests. Three are going through the classes now and they’re going to take the test soon, and two of them already took the test since this has been going on in the last month. I just know that a lot of the other people are going to get a good opportunity if they mind their p’s and q’s, and by that I mean show up on time, don’t drink, don’t be a jerk, and work hard. Then they’re gonna get what they should get.
“Jerry’s not a bad guy. It’s just that he freaks out and doesn’t think it through sometimes. For years, there have been associates of mine who’ve said, ‘Yeah, we know he’s an a--hole, but he’s our a--hole.’”
Q. You say the smaller venues Jam owns—the Riviera and Vic theaters and the Park West—cannot pay the same hourly rates that Live Nation’s bigger buildings pay. You know the argument from the Jam side, if or when they talk, is going to be that unionizing means ticket prices will go through the roof, and Jam might not even be able to stay in business.
A. “Yeah, but concert ticket prices have already gone way through the roof! That’s part of the point the fellas have brought up over and over again. I have a ticket here from when I was with Ozzy [Osbourne] where it was $8 in advance and $9 for day of show. That’s the ‘Diary of a Madman’ tour, which isn’t a century ago. [The tour was 1981-82.] So ticket prices have skyrocketed, and most of that is due to bands thinking of new ways to do things and the V.I.P. tickets that they sell, all these things they’ve come up with. But the guys that aren’t getting any benefit from really doing a lot of the work are the guys on the stage.
“For instance, I had to do a five-year battle. Have you noticed that they moved the sound position at the Riviera? That took me five years to get done. It’s because people don’t want to listen—‘It’s going to cost too much money! Nobody’s gonna like it!’—you get all this stuff, but my intention is totally like I said Wednesday: To see the smile on the kid in the fourth row who’s spending his parents’ hard-earned money to be at that show. I’ve been on many a tour where things start going down and some guy will say, ‘You work for me!’ No way! I work with you to make them [the fans] happy. I have another six or seven joke lines like that, but you know how I am.”
Q. Let me continue to play the devil’s advocate: Can this fight lead to Jam being squeezed out of the business and Chicago becoming a Live Nation-dominated town like most others in America?
A. “It could if they continue to spend money and not talk. All they’re doing is spending a pile of cash to lawyers to stall it. And they’re not gonna stall it.”
Q. Where do the other Jam employees stand—all of the talent bookers, the marketing folks, and the office staffers?
A. “I don’t think they can make a statement that’s anti-company, but Wednesday, as I was speaking, one of them looked out the window and I threw the [Star Trek] “live long and prosper” at him, which I am wont to do, and he gave me the peace sign and walked back into the building. And another one, I said, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ And he smiled and waved, but he went inside.”
Q. What about Jam co-founder Arny Granat? Where does he stand?
A. “I haven’t talked to Arny; I don’t know. I would have thought he would have called me, but he hasn’t, so that’s where it sits. I did see him at AC/DC. He’s always been a nice guy to me. He’s a business man, but he’s always been nice to me, and when something came up that maybe he didn’t like, he’d always come to me and say, ‘Listen, this is how it has to be.’ But for Jerry to just say, ‘Listen, we’re going in a different direction, you guys are all fired….’ Listen, there was some drama going on between a couple of people, but it wasn’t me, but they’re saying it was me.
Q. They’ve positioned you as the ringleader—the Joe Hill?
A. “Yeah. They were, ‘This is all [your] fault,’ and I think I’m gonna get sued. I don’t mind; if that happens, I can look at it and say, ‘I didn’t do it to you, pal.’ I actually said to the lawyers when we were negotiating the number of days a guy would have had to work in the last year in order to vote whether or not there would be a union, and the labor says there has to be a union vote, I said to those guys, ‘You know what? I’ll find another job, but you’ll never find another me.’
“So there was drama going on between the building guy and the production guy and we’ve been complaining about it for five years. There’s a lot of things I could get into about leaking roofs and why do we have to shovel snow. The loading zone at the Riviera floods every time it rains, so we had to for about six months argue with them to finally get a sump pump, and now we have to pump it out every time before we can load without anybody getting hurt.”
Q. We all know about the air-conditioning problems at the Riv…
A. “You don’t know the half of all that!”
Q. And the rats.
A. “You read the story about Stinky the Riv rat! We’ve always said Stinky the Riv rat was the biggest rat ever, and he’s the guy that really runs the Riviera. We’ve always had this classic story, so when they brought [the inflatable rat] out, we had to say, ‘You know, this is Stinky the Riv rat!’
“Now, we [the stagehands] have moved all our stuff out. We had a lot of stuff that we kept, personal equipment there, to enhance the shows, because the company wouldn’t pay for that. We used a lot of our own equipment. We just took everything out, and we’ll see what happens.”
Q. Back to the big picture, Jolly: Can Jam come back from this and be the local company that Chicagoans have been supporting for 40 years?
A. I think they could. They just have to clean up some of their middle management as far as I’m concerned, and get a realistic grip on things. No longer can you say, ‘Oh, we’ll put that off until later.’ Things have to be done now, and things have to be taken care of. The government says everybody is supposed to have health insurance. So that should happen. Clean it up! That’s all I can say.”
Q. For a union agitator, you’re sounding eminently reasonable.
A. “I’d like to think I’m the same as I’ve always been, but sometimes, the devil come out!
“I will say one thing in parting: I have told Jerry for years that we should go back to saying, ‘This show has been brought to you by your friends at Jam.’ And it’s time that once again we prove that we are the city’s friend.’”
Q. That has never been something Live Nation or C3 would say.
A. “Listen, [Mickelson and Granat] have worked hard to do what they’ve done. But I helped build it. I’ve seen a lot of aspects, a lot of things that were down moments caused by weather and stuff, but we’ve always recovered. And I have high hopes that we can recover from this, too. I think it’s more being afraid of the unknown and the change than it is knowing that ‘X’ is going to cause a knife to go through my heart.”
Q. That was almost poetic, Jolly.
A. “Well, I’m one of the mouthiest guys you’ve ever met. Maybe I should try writing lyrics.”