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Theme Parks Voting on Unions

April 19, 1999

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ With the help of television’s ``Odd Couple″ and Edith Bunker, the actors, dancers, singers and stunt people at Universal Studios Escape are preparing to vote this week on whether to organize at the resort’s two theme parks.

With a diverse work force that is expected to grow to 16,000 people by the end of summer, Universal has been the No. 1 target for organized labor here. A victory could bring in resources from international labor groups to organize other parts of the theme park resort’s expanding work force, and eventually other parts of Orlando’s hospitality industry.

Unlike other top tourist destinations, such as Las Vegas and New York, unions in Orlando have a weak hold over the area’s tourism industry. Only two major segments of Orlando’s $16 billion tourism industry, Walt Disney World and the Orange County Convention Center, are organized. Tourism-related jobs account for about one-fifth of all jobs in the Orlando area.

Union officials, however, are confident the Actors’ Equity Association can pull off a victory on Friday when 300 Universal performers vote. Actors’ Equity was soundly defeated in 1992 during its last attempt to unionize, but this time around the union has taken a slower, grassroots approach.

``We are very much anticipating Equity’s success and looking forward to the buzz that will be created by that,″ said Brian Lawlor, business representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

``I’m certain that a victory would initiate more campaigns,″ said Harvey Totzke, president of the Service Trades Council Union, a coalition of six unions representing everything from cooks to drivers to costumed characters. ``That certainly opens the door for future organizing.″

Actors Equity has enlisted the help of some well-known personalities. Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, stars of ``The Odd Couple,″ and Jean Stapleton, who played Edith Bunker on ``All in the Family,″ are the celebrity draws to an Equity-sponsored gala for Universal performers tonight.

But Universal isn’t giving in without a fight.

``I believe that unions are divisive. I believe they build a wall between management and workers,″ said Tom Williams, Universal Studios Escape’s president and chief executive. ``The workers are very smart and very capable of expressing their point of view ... They don’t need to have a middle person or a third party interpreting or talking for them.″

Park performers have been required to go to meetings where they listen to Universal executives lecture on the disadvantages of joining a union.

The union gets no similar face-to-face time with performers and is relying on direct mailings to spread its message.

The focus of the Actors’ Equity campaign has been the guarantee of safe and healthy working conditions, such as clean costumes, dry stages and more dress rehearsals, rather than on traditional issues of wages and benefits.

``Working for Universal isn’t a bad thing. We’re not talking about some evil ogre,″ said Doug Truelsen, who earns $16.40 as an actor at Universal Studios’ Hercules and Xena attraction and is a member of the union’s organizing committee. ``We just want guarantees of things they say we have.″

Universal is opening a second theme park, Islands of Adventure, next month and recently opened a nightlife entertainment complex, CityWalk. A new hotel is scheduled to open later this year.

``The larger they get, the more costly it is to organize it,″ Hall said. ``It’s now or never.″

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