Griffith Observatory’s planetarium storytellers petition to unionize with Actors’ Equity
The astronomical tour guides whose job it is to point out the Big Dipper and explain the big bang to visitors of Griffith Observatory have petitioned to join a union better known for representing stars of the theatrical variety.
The dozen observatory lecturers at the Los Angeles institution have unanimously signed union authorization cards with the Actors’ Equity Assn. A petition was presented to the city’s Employee Relations Board during a meeting Monday morning, kicking off a formal feedback period before the board makes a decision in a few months.
On Thursdays through Sundays, the planetarium lecturers entertain legions of schoolkids and families, narrating and contextualizing the movements of the celestial bodies projected above them. A majority of the lecturers are already Actors’ Equity members through their other acting and performing engagements.
“We are telling stories about the sky,” said Michael Faulkner, who’s worked at the Griffith Observatory for more than a decade. “In that way, we are nodding to the myths of the past and those who told stories about the constellations. Mankind’s relationship to the stars has always been primal and rich with intention.”
Faulkner said he and his fellow petitioners do not have an adversarial relationship with their direct supervisors, but rather wanted a voice with their ultimate employer — the city of L.A. — and a formal pathway to bring up concerns about their working conditions.
A coalition of workers from Amazon ONT8 facility in California’s Inland Empire are trying to unionize, backed by independent worker-led Amazon Labor Union.
The observatory lecturers are also the only nonunionized employees in the building; other museum staff and technicians are represented by unions such as the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the country’s largest union of public employees.
Faulkner said his position was a part of AFSCME decades before but was removed shortly before he joined the observatory. Since then, observatory lecturers have not received a raise.
“They wanted to have a say with their employers, just like their colleagues side by side with them,” said Stef Frey, Actors’ Equity’s organizing director.
In addition to negotiating salary, another potential benefit of organizing with the actors’ union is consolidating health insurance, since some of the current union members who work at the observatory earn Actors’ Equity insurance through their other acting engagements, Frey said.
A group of dancers filed a petition for a union election through the Actors’ Equity Assn.
More important, Faulkner believes that joining a union could preserve the longevity of having live performers at the planetarium, something that many institutions around the country no longer do.
“Our role is unique and it is appropriate that in Hollywood, California, there is a live person interpreting this text — which is sometimes technical language, sometimes like Shakespeare,” Faulkner said.
In the following months, workers and city representatives will have the opportunity to give input on the Actors’ Equity petition and the appropriateness of the bargaining unit before the Employee Relations Board makes a decision on approving or rejecting the union.
The organizing of the lecturers at Griffith Observatory is part of a broader new organizing focus by Actors’ Equity, which recently helped a group of strippers at Star Garden in North Hollywood file a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.
“It’s a really good example of the kind of work that Equity members do all over the country that is performative in nature and is live but that historically Equity hasn’t been as proactive about as we are starting to be now,” said Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle.
Although many campaigns are not public yet, Shindle said the union is looking into representing other workers such as actors who assist in medical training, performers at corporate events and improv artists.