Buena Park’s Medieval Times is a castle divided by union disillusion

Medieval Times is a castle divided.

In July, most of the stable hands, knights, squires and show cast members at the Buena Park dinner theater signed cards expressing interest in unionizing with the American Guild of Variety Artists.

But many have since pulled back, citing reports of deceptive tactics on AGVA’s part to get union cards signed. They also claim the union’s constitution and bylaws are not clearly stated.

The workers have asked to be removed from the bargaining unit but claim AGVA has ignored the request.

The castle’s seven stable hands were the first employees looking to be excluded. When their request was sent to Susanne K. Doris, AGVA’s executive secretary-treasurer, she ignored it, they said.

In a Wednesday, Oct. 12 interview, Doris said that wasn’t the case.

“We received a form letter, and we emailed our response back on the same day,” she said. “I said we were in receipt of the letter and asked for the email addresses of the employees who didn’t want to be included, but I got no response.”

Workers said they received Doris’ request for the email addresses.

The employees turned to Medieval Times’ attorney, who also requested the stable hands be removed from the bargaining unit. At an Aug. 15-16 hearing with the National Labor Relations Board, AGVA again argued to keep the stable hands included.

Twenty-five of the 47 members of Medieval Times’ bargaining unit — including stable hands, knights, squires and show cast members — signed a petition asking AGVA to withdraw its petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union election. (File photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

After weeks of research and meetings with both AGVA and Medieval Times, 25 of the 47 members of Medieval Times’ bargaining unit — including stable hands, knights, squires and show cast members — signed a petition asking AGVA to withdraw its petition to the NLRB for a union election.

Several members of AGVA’s administration received the signed petition, and Doris responded three days later.

“The document that you sent me is of questionable authenticity, and will not interfere with the fundamental right of Medieval (Times) employees to choose to unionize,” she wrote. “We are awaiting a decision from the NLRB as to the details of the upcoming election.”

The workers’ petition cites an NRLB stipulation that allows employees to withdraw from a bargaining unit before a union election is held.

“The fact that the parties have expended resources, including in anticipation of a scheduled election, is not a basis for refusing to approve a withdrawal request, even very shortly before the election,” the stipulation states.

Michelle Green, who has worked as a stable hand at the Buena Park castle for nearly a year and earns $16.25 an hour, said the unionization process has moved so quickly, the workers didn’t have time to evaluate the impact of AGVA’s victory earlier this year at Medieval Times’ Lyndhurst, N.J. location. Employees there voted 26-11 for union membership.

“We’ve missed the opportunity to see what happens with that location so we can better understand the process and see what we would get out of it,” the 26-year-old Irvine resident said. “We need more information to decide if it would be beneficial to us.”

Marten Borg, who portrays a knight at the Buena Park location, agreed.

“I always felt we should wait to see what happens in New Jersey,” he said. “The other thing is, we asked for a copy of their constitution and bylaws, but we’ve never seen those. That sends up a red flag for me.”

Dallas-based Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament operates a total of 10 Medieval Times dinner theaters, with additional locations in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Myrtle Beach, Orlando, Scottsdale and Toronto.

Workers at those locations haven’t said if they intend to join a labor union.

Doris said the Buena Park employees could benefit from unionization.

“A lot of them people are making $14 an hour and they work them just short of 30 hours so they don’t qualify for health insurance,” she said. “They’re saying they can’t make a living on the wages they’re being paid.”

The workers’ push to unionize was fueled by wage and safety concerns. Doris didn’t discuss what kind of wage increase AGVA might ask for if the workers unionize.

Green said AGVA’s union dues would run around $750 a year.

Erin Zapcic, who portrays a queen at the Buena Park castle, said the theater has been operating with limited staff since it reopened in June 2021 after a COVID-19 shutdown — a situation that has left the door open for potential injuries.

“We do 16 shows a week, so the knights don’t have time to properly rest,” the 39-year-old Los Angeles resident said recently. “And when we’re short on stable hands, they don’t have time to do all of the safety checks that are needed, like ensuring that the saddles are tight.”

Julia McCurdie, who also plays a queen at Medieval Times, agreed.

“I also work at Disneyland, and I see stunt performers there with no horseback riding skills who are making $33 to $35 an hour doing stunt shows that are five minutes long,” she said. “Meanwhile, our knights are doing two-hour shows, two to three times a day and throwing themselves off of moving horses. It’s alarming.”

Jake Bowman, who plays the part of a swashbuckling knight at the Buena Park castle, fractured his thumb in June and suffered a hairline fracture to the spine in his lower back during his previous tenure at another Medieval Times in Dallas. He earns $18.50 an hour.

Workers at the Buena Park castle say they want to work with Medieval Times and take six months to see how things shake out in New Jersey before making a commitment.

They’ve also cited the NLRB’s “dual card” doctrine, which says an employee “may revoke any union authorization card you have signed by simply signing a letter, card, petition or other document stating that you do not support the union, or that you support another union.”

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The doctrine further states that when an employee signs two documents with conflicting statements of union support, “neither document is a valid proof of the employee’s representational preference.”

The NLRB has not rendered a decision regarding the official members of the Buena Park bargaining unit, nor has an election date been set.

“I know the initial mindset was to strike while the iron is hot, but that sacrifices the aspect of prudence,” Green said. “We’re kind of getting to see what it looks like in New Jersey, and it’s very slow going. They’ve had a few meetings … but it doesn’t seem like they’ve accomplished much.”

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