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Artists Dropped by Opera Complain to NLRB

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San Diego Opera illegally replaced its staff of makeup artists and wig makers for the 1989 season with a crew from New York after learning that the local group had sought to join a union, according to an unfair labor practices petition filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

The petition was filed with the NLRB by North Hollywood-based Local 706 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees. Local 706 is a highly specialized union of 625 wig makers and makeup artists.

A lawyer for Local 706 said it is illegal for a company to discriminate against employees for seeking union representation.

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Paul Best, who heads the San Diego Opera’s makeup and wig department, said San Diego Opera officials had sent him and his crew of more than a dozen people 1989 season contracts, but angrily withdrew them when they learned that the group had sought representation from Local 706.

Best, who has worked with the San Diego Opera 13 years, said the company hired an entirely new crew of makeup artists and wig makers from Elsen Associates in New York City.

A spokesman for Elsen Associates confirmed that his company has a crew working in San Diego, but referred all further questions to San Diego Opera. Ian Campbell, general director of San Diego Opera, refused to discuss any part of the dispute.

Best and union officials both said they were surprised by the opera company’s actions. Best said that, when San Diego Opera’s director of production, Gregory Hirsch, demanded that he and his staff return their contracts, they complied “because we thought we would be talking soon, and we wanted to do everything aboveboard.”

Soon after that, Best said, their positions were filled by Elsen Associates.

“When I called Hirsch and asked to talk, he became irate and would not talk with me,” said Howard Smit, business agent for Local 706. “I really thought it would be no problem since the opera is already unionized. Its costumers, stagehands and musicians all belong to unions.”

The San Diego Opera, which recently settled its differences with the members of its orchestra and signed a three-year contract with Local 325 of the American Federation of Musicians, opened its four-opera 1989 season Jan. 21 with “Lucia di Lammermoor” and will close April 23.

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A spokesman for Local 706 said he expects the NLRB to act on the petition within a month.

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