Behind the Scenes, Houston Art Workers Make PPE for Nurses | Interview with Barbara Dolney, IATSE-TWU Local 896

With live productions no longer safe during the pandemic, workers both in and behind the scenes of the entertainment industry are struggling. In Houston, theater unions have reported massive layoffs, approaching 100% unemployment among their memberships, with as many unmet needs in utilities, rent amnesty and social provision. Long-term problems also exist for the financial position of the local arts industry, living on ticket sales and donor-driven fundraising. Houston oil tycoons historically supported the arts industry to make the city an attractive place to live, and their funds remain a key driver of the local sector’s development. With the collapse of oil and the possibility of an extended depression, the crisis opens up deep questions for the future of the Houston arts sector and the possibility of giving it a new, carbon-free and socialized basis. In the meantime, the closure of art industry workplaces – theatres, performance halls, museums and galleries – introduce new challenges to the sector’s workers and organizers. The International Alliance of Theater Stage Employees – Theatrical Wardrobe Union (IATSE-TWU) is a craft affiliate of the AFL-CIO, covering costume designers and hair and makeup artists. S.U. spoke with Barbara Dolney, President of the IATSE-TWU Local 896 in Houston and Galveston about the experience of union members during this period, and how they are working to build solidarity amidst its challenges. We invite those with labor stories during the pandemic to contact us at

Can you speak a little bit about what union members are going through right now? What challenges are they facing?

Our brother union, local 51 lost a retiree we worked with for years. A couple of weeks ago, we lost someone who left our local and moved to New York and passed away early on. One of our members, here, I found out recently, contracted the virus but, thankfully, recovered. These stories are starting to come out now and are hitting us really close to home. Right now, our local also has no work. None of the companies we have contacts with have any shows going. The Galveston Grand, the ballet, the opera, TUTS [Theatre Under The Stars], Broadway Across America, Society for the Performing Arts – all of the places where we have contracts – are shut down. Some of them have applied for the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan; some of our people are getting paid work through the loan. We’re also a part-time local; we can’t guarantee full-time work, so a lot of our members have a second job. Some of our members do manage to do this full-time: dressing shows, doing hair, working at a shop, stitching for a company. They’re out of work. Those who do have a second job, many of them are in retail and so, again, they’re not working those jobs either. So supplemental and main income are gone. A lot of people are applying for unemployment and are finding it difficult to get through to the unemployment office. The office, of course, has only so many people and only so many hours in the day to work on this, and there are millions of people applying. That said, even though we have rent due, need to put food on the table, and have bills to pay, we know that if we want to have employment in the future, we need to stay at home and stay safe first. We expect shows to come back next season – September, essentially. We’re hoping for late summer – July or August – but we’re not sure. Nothing is sure at this point.

We’ve been talking to frontline workers over the past few weeks about what it’s like to organize in their workplaces in these extreme conditions. What does activity and organizing look like, when, in your case, the workplace has been sealed off?

A lot of us are currently making masks and giving them to healthcare workers and people who need it. We’re sending them all over the country – New York, New Jersey, Dallas, as well as here in Houston, a lot of hospitals, like UTMB (University of Texas Medical Branch), St. Joseph, Memorial Hermann, I think. We have a lot of people doing this work that I’m not aware of still. I’m in a small group of about ten or so and we’re making masks, but I know there’s more, for example. We’re keeping ourselves busy that way. If they can sell them, great. If not, we’re giving them out for free. From what I know, we’re mostly donating and not asking for money. But if someone wants to pay us, we’re not averse to it [laughs]! 

That’s the coolest thing I’ve heard all week!

Yeah, [laughs]! Well, we’re trying to keep people safe. We want to go back to work, too – everybody does – but if no one’s healthy, that can’t happen. And one of the ways we can help is by helping them. We’re doing our best!

Within the union, we have a friends-helping-friends type initiative. Younger union members are helping older ones, right now – making sure they get what they need, making sure they get groceries, prescriptions, and just checking up on their well-being. I’m regularly reaching out to members, calling people, emailing, doing Zoom calls, Facetiming – trying to see how folks are doing. I know people who live alone. And, we want them to be updated about what’s going on with each of our contracts or each of the companies that we deal with, what’s next, and so on.

During Hurricane Harvey, the AFL-CIO got together a group of union leaders to talk about a response to Harvey – what members needed, what the AFL-CIO could do, and that same group got together for this crisis to discuss COVID-19 issues and what we could do that was similar and what could we do, this time, that was different. We helped push for rent relief, helping people with unemployment claims, or ensuring support for people in each contract negotiation – some people are having problems here with their employers right now, some aren’t. We want to help people monetarily, emotionally, psychologically, and physically if need be. During Harvey, we set up a fair to get resources to members, and recently we’ve been trying to figure out how to do that online. 

We did a story last week on General Electric workers in Dallas, fighting to retool their plant to make ventilators. It’s a shame the city administration here isn’t lending a hand and drawing up a contract with you all to manufacture PPE and throw some money your way.

Yeah, that would be nice [laughs]. I’m not totally sure how it would work, right now – we’re a very small union. There are some other shops that have switched production, just as some liquor outfits have switched to hand sanitizer, some clothing outfits have switched to masks. The problem is it’s difficult for anyone to find raw materials right now. I had some stuff available to me; the costume shops donated some fabric in the beginning which then ran out. We then reached into our own stash of stuff and have been doing that from home (but that’s limited). It’s difficult. A lot of people can’t find elastic, for example. I’ve never been more excited to order two rolls of elastic! We’ve gone back to the cottage industry – which is the way costumes used to be made – where orders go to twelve or so different people, in different things, in different amounts and all in their home. Each mask can take up to ten or twenty minutes to make and everyone works at a different speed and has different materials at their disposal. Because members are working on this on an individual basis, we’re trying to use the union to keep them connected. So if we have a request for masks, we connect that with someone who has time to make it; or we’re passing on tips to each other on what to do or what not to do to make the mask-making process faster; sometimes a company wants it a certain way with ties rather than elastic, a place for a filter or no, etc. We, of course, have been following CDC and FDA guidelines. I’ve almost hit my 500-masks-made mark; I know members who are at 1000. Of course, if the city wanted to give us supplies, we wouldn’t say no! 

Is there a donation page to support members short on money?

The local faces restrictive rules on that when it comes to money. But we would gladly accept donations in supplies from people generally – particularly elastic in ¼ and ⅛ inch widths, cord elastic, 100% cotton fabric – all of that can be donated to the Texas Gulf Coast Area AFL-CIO.

The Houston Arts Alliance supports art workers and artists. To donate follow the link here

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