Working at the famous dinner-theater chain Medieval Times comes with some unique occupational hazards. For instance, sometimes a guest who has emptied one too many goblets of booze starts banging the Middle Ages-style plates and bowls together.
Clanging the heavy dinnerware can spook the horses in the arena, endangering the knights as they joust for the queen’s honor. It often falls to the queen herself — a mic’d-up actor on a throne above the pit — or her chancellor, Lord Cedric, to gently admonish the overzealous crowd, all while keeping in character: Please, m’lord, don’t bang the plates.
“You can hear it backstage sometimes, it’s so loud,” said Purnell Thompson, a stablehand at the Lyndhurst, New Jersey, location. “We’ve had people thrown off their horses from the horses getting spooked. There’s only so much you can do to keep them under control at that point.”
Safety concerns are a big reason Thompson and other Medieval Times employees in Lyndhurst are trying to form the chain’s first union, workers told HuffPost. They have been organizing their location with the American Guild of Variety Artists, an AFL-CIO union that represents performers at theaters, theme parks and touring shows, including the Radio City Rockettes and entertainers at Disneyland.
The knights, squires, show cast and stablehands of Lyndhurst will vote July 15 on whether or not to unionize under an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Around 40 workers would be included in the union. (Food and administrative workers appear to be employed under a separate corporate entity and would not be part of the bargaining unit.)
Medieval Times, which did not respond to interview requests for this story, has opposed the union campaign. Labor Department records show the company retained a union-avoidance consultant at the cost of $3,200 per day, plus expenses, to sway workers against the union. Employees said several anti-union confabs have been held on rehearsal days at the castle.
“They treat a lot of the professionally trained actors like anybody can do this job. They treat a lot of the stablehands like we’re fully replaceable.”
– Purnell Thompson, Medieval Times employee
The consultant might have his work cut out for him. Medieval Times’ performers include trained actors and musicians who’ve been members of other entertainment unions, such as the Actors’ Equity Association or SAG-AFTRA, and already understand the role collective bargaining plays in their industry.
If the union succeeds in New Jersey, the Medieval Times campaign may spread to other castles throughout the kingdom, drawing the company into a broader nationwide battle over collective bargaining. The Texas-based chain has nine locations around the U.S., as well as one in Toronto.
HuffPost spoke to three workers supportive of the organizing effort, who said they want to be treated like the professional entertainers they are. They said the pay at Medieval Times tends to lag behind comparable industry work, with many performers starting around the New Jersey minimum wage of $13 per hour and working years before reaching $20. And they believe some workers end up with crucial tasks, such as handling horses, without sufficient training.
Every two-hour show at Medieval Times requires careful planning and rehearsal. The knights are essentially stuntmen, leaping from horses and smashing wooden lances on one another’s shields as they joust. The show includes complex dressage movements, as well as a falconer who handles a bird as it flies through the arena over the crowd. Performers often do two and sometimes three shows a day.
“They treat it like a normal job, and it isn’t,” one worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said of the company. “Today [managers] will call us a sports team; tomorrow they’ll call us a theater. But we are treated like a business, like a normal 9-to-5 job.”
Inadequate staffing in a tight labor market has led to a number of safety concerns, the worker said. Some performers have felt overworked during the rebound from the pandemic and fear an accident during a live show.
With limited security at the shows, performers are the ones left to enforce boundaries and police the crowd — including when guests reach out to touch the falcon as it flies overhead, endangering the bird and themselves. And workers say the rotating cast of queens is subjected to unwanted touching during pre- and post-show meet-and-greets with fans, especially with so many bachelor parties on the weekends.
“If you mix children, alcohol and animals, it can be a very interesting situation if you don’t have enough eyes on it,” explained another worker. “Not having enough event staff, that puts a lot of people at risk.”
The employee recounted a well-known incident during a rowdy Saturday night show when a drunken woman in the crowd made her way up to the throne and tried to grab the microphone attached to the queen’s face, requiring the queen to fend the woman off on her own. A police officer was in the castle on duty, the worker said, but he was trying to keep watch on the entire crowd.
The worker wants to see a greater security presence, especially on weekends.
“It feels like the customer experience so greatly outweighs not only our employee experience but our safety and our well-being,” the employee said.
Thompson, 25, said he and his co-workers are passionate about their jobs and wound up at Medieval Times because they love their craft. He has spent much of his life around horses and helps tend to the two dozen at his castle, each with its own personality. Most guests don’t understand the amount of preparation that goes into a show, he said.
Three issues he hopes the union can force the company to address are safety, pay and “respect.”
“They treat a lot of the professionally trained actors like anybody can do this job,” Thompson said. “They treat a lot of the stablehands like we’re fully replaceable and they consider it an entry-level job. I’ve worked entry-level animal care jobs. This is not that. You can get hurt or die doing this.”
“If you mix children, alcohol and animals, it can be a very interesting situation if you don’t have enough eyes on it. Not having enough event staff, that puts a lot of people at risk.”
– Medieval Times employee
The Medieval Times campaign has emerged amid a flurry of organizing activity around the country: A union campaign at Starbucks has managed to organize nearly 200 stores in a matter of months, while other successful campaigns have launched at Amazon, REI and Apple.
This is not the first time workers in Lyndhurst have tried to organize: Actors’ Equity and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees narrowly lost an election there in 2006, with 16 workers voting in favor of unionizing and 18 against. The unions alleged that Medieval Times violated the law during the campaign and sought to have the election results thrown out. A labor board hearing officer agreed, but the recommendation was overturned on appeal.
Workers involved in the latest union campaign say they recently received a visit from the company’s chief executive, Perico Montaner, whose family created the Medieval Times dinner show concept in Majorca, Spain, decades ago. Montaner wanted to hear the concerns that had led to a union drive.
A number of employees have spoken up during the anti-union meetings, challenging the assertions made by the company’s consultant, according to workers. They said they are confident Medieval Times will have a union when the ballots are counted later this month.
“I know what acting unions are like, and I know that our situation has become pretty dire at the castle,” said one worker. “Something has to be done.”