For union stagehands, Labor Day is day of labor

Jason Kourkounis, left, and Matt Sherrill, right, help remove a large fiberglass beer bottle on the Ben Franklin Parkway during the cleanup after the Made in America Festival in Philadelphia on Monday.
Jason Kourkounis, left, and Matt Sherrill, right, help remove a large fiberglass beer bottle on the Ben Franklin Parkway during the cleanup after the Made in America Festival in Philadelphia on Monday. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 03, 2014

By the time Labor Day dawned, steamy and soggy on the Made in America concert site on the Parkway, union stagehand Colin Peters and his overnight crew had just about wrapped up dismantling the three miles of barricades.

The concertgoers, soaked by Sunday night's rainstorm, had long gone, and Peters and his crew packed up and shipped out two of the four stages, even as headliner Kings of Leon finished up on the main stage.

The barricades came down next, mostly in miserable conditions.

"We were outside in the weather and then there were showers all night long," Peters, 30, said at 11:30 a.m. Monday, sounding positively cheerful, despite wet shoes, sodden socks and more than 24 hours at work, since 8 a.m. Sunday.

"We just kept plugging along."

On the job on the Parkway, Peters, a crew chief for Local 8 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, didn't have time to attend Monday's Labor Day parade and picnic.

But to him, the entire Made in America concert, with its 40,000 attendees, was its own Labor Day event.

"This event is part of the labor movement. It's celebrating the city, celebrating America, but it's also employing many hundreds of people," he said.

"All the cops, all the sanitation people, all the security, all the caterers - that's more of an homage to the labor class."

On Labor Day, Peters, of Drexel Hill, has an interesting perspective. Unlike some of his fellow union members, he doesn't come from a union family. His father, in fact, was a longtime manager at Acme supermarkets.

A college graduate with a business management degree, Peters was one of those guys who was always hanging around backstage, doing the lighting, sound and set construction for the drama club in high school and theatrical performances in college.

At Kutztown University, he worked some shows and caught the attention of IATSE union members in the area. They signed him on and he worked some jobs while he continued his schooling, knowing that at graduation, he'd have to choose: pursue a full-time career as a stagehand or push for a spot in corporate America.

Then two things happened - at about the same time. He graduated from college and his father got laid off, after 32 years on the job. As a manager, his seniority didn't help him.

"That made me want to join the union," Peters said. "In the business world, in the white-collar world, there's no job security."

In a twist on the usual - where union fathers help their children join the local, Peters helped his laid-off father, now 63, get stagehand work in the Poconos. "It gave him his dignity back."

Peters said he utilizes his business degree all the time on the job to handle planning. And, as a crew leader, some of the lessons he learned about management have daily relevance.

Some of the time, Peters handles stage crew responsibilities for the Pennsylvania Ballet. For Made in America, Peters was put in charge of a subset of the 200 stagehands - a crew of workers who built everything but the two main stages.

His crew constructed and is now dismantling the two minor stages and food tents. They strung festival lighting, set up pavilions, installed VIP seating and handicapped-access platforms. During the shows, they packed and unpacked equipment for each performer on the two smaller stages.

Like the other stagehands, Peters relied on the "show must go on" adrenaline rush and an esprit de corps of shared exhilaration and misery to carry him through more than a week of 12-hour shifts.

By midafternoon Monday, Peters began to see an end to his work, figuring on a 6 p.m. stop time for himself and the 33 fresh crew members who joined him at 6 a.m.

"I'm going to go home and take a shower," Peters said. "And then, after nine days of eating dinner in a tent sweating, I'm going to go to nice restaurant with air-conditioning and have a good meal - lobster, crabs, oysters, would hit the spot."


jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

www.inquirer.com/jobbing

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