Court upholds ruling favoring local stagehands

In a case that grew out of a dispute over the stagehand business at Mohegan Sun, the state Appellate Court has upheld a ruling in favor of stagehands who withdrew from a union and formed their own business.

The resulting nonunion company, Crew 538 LLC, has since cornered the lucrative stagehand business at the casinos and elsewhere in southeastern Connecticut, according to its co-founder, Robert Francis of Lisbon.

Francis, his business partner, Michael Hughes, and Sheila Harrington-Hughes, former officers of Local 538 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in 2008 by Local 84 of IATSE.

The suit came after Local 84, based in West Hartford, pursued a merger with Local 538, the union's New London-area chapter.

Members of Local 538, the smaller of the two locals, opposed the merger, which nevertheless went forward in the summer of 2006. In the suit, Local 84 alleged that the Local 538 officers improperly disbursed union funds while the merger — in which Local 84 absorbed Local 538 — was taking place.

In 2011, the late Robert Satter, a judge trial referee, ruled in Hartford Superior Court that Francis, Hughes and Harrington-Hughes had done nothing wrong, a decision the Appellate Court affirmed in a decision published Tuesday in the Connecticut Law Journal.

"None of my guys wanted that merger to take place," Francis said this week. "We had 43 (union) card-holders and all but five of us dropped our cards," quitting the union in the wake of the merger.

Francis, Local 538's business manager, and Hughes, its president, formed Crew 538.

"We started the new company to make sure the guys kept working," Francis said. "We kept all the work we had at Mohegan Sun and picked up more there and at Foxwoods."

Francis said Crew 538 now employs more than 250 stagehands, all of whom work part time.

Stagehands build and dismantle stages and set up lighting, sound and video equipment for entertainment acts at the casinos and elsewhere and for corporate events at convention centers and hotels. Recently, Crew 538 members set up equipment at Sonalysts Studios in Waterford, where the singer Mary J. Blige was rehearsing, Francis said.

The stagehand business at the casinos alone generates close to $1 million a year, Francis said, lucrative enough for Local 84 to want a piece of the action.

Bill Philbin, Local 84's business representative, declined to comment on the case, saying he had not yet had a chance to review the Appellate Court ruling.

Mike Walsh of Moukawsher & Walsh, a lawfirm with offices in Groton and Hartford, represented the former Local 538 officers.

"I have to hand it to them," he said. "They pursued it on principal when Local 84 wanted to settle for a small amount. The whole thing was basically a spite suit."

Walsh said he deposed a vice president of the international union, who testified that Local 538 was free to disburse the funds in dispute any way it saw fit. Under the international's bylaws, member locals are autonomous.

"That was really the gist of it," Walsh said.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct title of Local 538.

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