Erin Zapcic as the queen at Medieval Times. Zapcic works at the California castle where worker are trying to unionize. Courtesy Erin Zapcic
Jake Bowman fractured his thumb last month during a live show at the Medieval Times in Buena Park, California. The 33-year-old knight chipped a bone while trying to artfully absorb a blow from his opponent’s sword. He continued fighting.
He couldn’t make a solid fist with his left hand for nearly four weeks. But since he’s right-handed, the injury didn’t impact his ability to sign a union card.
Bowman’s castle is now the second Medieval Times location in the U.S. to move to unionize, HuffPost has learned. Workers there submitted a petition for a union election to the National Labor Relations Board on Friday afternoon, calling for a vote among the castle’s 50 knights, squires, show cast and stablehands on whether to join the American Guild of Variety Artists.
The petition comes on the heels of a high-profile union victory at the company’s castle in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, last week, where the AGVA won in a 26-11 blowout, easily overcoming an anti-union campaign by the company. The eagerness of California workers to follow suit suggests not all is well in the kingdom.
“You shouldn’t have to leave a job you love because you can’t afford to keep it anymore.” - Erin Zapcic, Medieval Times actor who plays the queen
When workers in Buena Vista saw what their kinsmen in Jersey were doing, they rounded up signatures from a “supermajority” of the castle in just five days, according to Bowman and others involved in the organizing.
“As cool as it is that I get to wake up every day and pretend to be a knight, it is a ridiculously dangerous job,” Bowman explained. “I really want to get this point across: It is not safe what we’re doing right now, and not healthy. And I love this job.”
Like their counterparts on the other coast, the California workers say low pay and lean staffing has led to a worrisome level of exhaustion. They described Buena Park as the busiest and highest-grossing of Medieval Times’ 10 North America castles (the Texas-based company is privately held). Bowman said he was not fully prepared for his rapid promotion from squire to knight – moving into a higher-risk, stuntman-like role – which he suspects came about because his castle is shorthanded.
“Broadway does eight shows a week, and we do 16,” said Erin Zapcic, one of the castle’s queens. “You’ve got people who are working every single show. They’re tired. The horses are tired. ... Even professional athletes have an off-season. We don’t have an off-season.”
Zapcic fell from a horse and bruised her thigh during a performance in October, and was unable to ride in the show’s procession for a couple of weeks. She said she typically does just two or three shows per week and is most concerned with her co-workers who perform constantly in highly physical roles.
Julia McCurdie playing the queen at Medieval Times. Courtesy Julia McCurdie
She believes hiring more people to train would give everyone a better quality of life and safer workplace ― as would bigger paychecks. A trained actor, Zapcic said she makes around $21 per hour at the castle after more than a decade with the company. That kind of money doesn’t go far in Orange County or Los Angeles, where many of the workers live.
“My hope is that a higher pay rate would attract more people to come and stay,” she said.
Julia McCurdie, another queen with nearly 10 years at Medieval Times, said she earns a higher wage in her second job as an entertainment host at Disneyland, facilitating fans’ interaction with Disney characters. Medieval Times’ knights, in particular, she said, should “start getting paid like the professional stuntmen that they are.” (Bowman said he earns around $18 per hour.)
“We’re trained professionals held to very high performance standards,” McCurdie, 29, said. “If they want to maintain any semblance of quality with their show, then they’ll have to pay for it.”
Medieval Times did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on the union campaign in Buena Park, and did not say anything publicly after the union victory in New Jersey. But the company has made its position clear to workers, having hired an anti-union consultant to hold meetings with employees at the Lyndhurst castle at a cost of $3,200 per day.
Following the Lyndhurst vote, Medieval Times CEO Perico Montaner, whose family founded the company, sent a portentous email to non-union workers that seemed designed to cool any further organizing.
“Let us be clear about what these employees ‘won’ today,” Montaner wrote in the note, as NJ.com reported. “They ‘won’ the privilege of a third party sitting across the table from the Company and asking for things…. Half of all new unions never reach a first contract. There is no time limit on negotiations.”
“As cool as it is that I get to wake up every day and pretend to be a knight, it is a ridiculously dangerous job.” - Jake Bowman, Medieval Times knight
As HuffPost reported Wednesday, Montaner later informed the non-union workers that they would be receiving a surprise midyear raise, which he attributed not to the appearance of a union but to the company’s efforts to help workers amid high inflation. Employers often try to chill organizing by giving non-union workers raises while saying newly unionized workers will have to bargain over any increases.
“We wouldn’t be here now if we hadn’t exhausted all our other options,” McCurdie said. “I’m failing to see the downside of having someone whose literal job is to advocate for us.”
Whatever tactics Montaner and his team deploy, it may be difficult for the company to stamp out the organizing activity, in part because the Medieval Times realm is smaller than it seems.
Zapcic was actually a queen in New Jersey before moving to LA for more acting opportunities. She was one of the actors playing Doña Maria Isabella, the first woman to take the throne at the Lyndhurst location. She maintained her Jersey connections as the union campaign heated up there, and was happy to take a leading role in the new effort in Buena Park. It didn’t hurt that she’s been a member of SAG-AFTRA, the actors union, and her father had worked for the state affiliate of the AFL-CIO labor federation.
Zapcic said her experience left her “in a unique position to help get this off the ground.”
“We love what we do,” she said. “Most times people only move on when they feel like they have to. They want to start a family or buy a house. You shouldn’t have to leave a job you love because you can’t afford to keep it anymore.”
Jake Bowman in his role as a knight at Medieval Times. Courtesy Jake Bowman
The labor board needs to confirm that the union gathered enough cards before scheduling an election. Once there’s a vote, the union needs to win a simple majority of votes cast in order to become the workers’ representative. The lopsided “yes” vote in New Jersey would seem to bode well for the union in an election in Southern California, where organized labor has a strong presence.
Bowman said he and other workers appreciated the outpouring of support Medieval Times workers received on Twitter following HuffPost’s earlier report on the New Jersey effort. And yes, he also loves the puns, of which there seems to be no limit. The Knights of Labor! They’re forming a craft guild! The peasants have officially revolted!
But he doesn’t want all the fun to overshadow the serious issues at play, including the safety of animals and workers alike.
“It’s not just us,” Bowman said. “The animals are overworked. There are a couple of horses in the show that do everything. We develop a close relationship with them. But when they get tired, they can’t say, ‘Slow down.’ We’re pushing them through the show and they’re going to lash out by biting or kicking.”
During an earlier stint with Medieval Times at its castle in Texas about nine years ago, Bowman says he suffered a hairline fracture to his L1 vertebra when he was kicked by a horse. That experience has stayed with him to this day. He said a lot of knights tend to be younger than him, in their early 20s, and he wonders how long his body will allow him to keep leaping from horses.
“Sixteen times in one week is a lot of impact on your joints, your kees, your ankles and your back,” he said. “It wears you down after a while.”