Visitors to this year’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair will have to cross a picket line to enjoy the high-stepping horses, cattle competitions and country music.
Local 58 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees confirmed Thursday its members — locked out of work at Exhibition Place since July 20 — will greet patrons of the big annual fair when it opens Friday.
Justin Antheunis, president of the IATSE local, said stagehands and technical employees will give visitors information on the lockout by city-owned Exhibition Place, and ask that if they still enter at least “respect our picket line and that we’ve been locked out for over 100 days now.”
“There will picket lines every morning before the doors open and continue through the afternoon until we get a deal done” for a new contract that lets them resume working on the site, he said.
The union says negotiations broke down in the summer because the city wants to contract out IATSE jobs, allowing tenants at Exhibition Place to bring in their own stage and technical staff.
Antheunis predicted the Royal could also see a loss in visitors, noting two teachers’ unions have notified members about the picket lines, and that school groups are a major Royal customer.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation issued an Oct. 19 bulletin asking members to show support for locked out IATSE members “wherever possible,” including honouring picket line protocols.
“Also, where they have the discretion, members should choose to plan and schedule class field trips to events other than those being held at Exhibition Place, and thereby choose to avoid planning or scheduling trips to events such as the Royal Winter Fair, Toronto Marlies hockey games or performances at Medieval Times or the Queen Elizabeth Theatre,” the bulletin states.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, told the Star in a statement that Exhibition Place’s demands “would effectively replace IATSE members with lower-paid workers who do not necessarily have the training to do the job effectively or safely.
“Members have been encouraged to send a message of support for the IATSE workers to Toronto Mayor John Tory and be mindful that they and their students would be crossing a picket line should they choose to attend the Royal Winter Fair.”
Charlie Johnstone, The Royal’s chief executive, said he doubts the informational picket lines will have much or any impact on attendance that is usually about 300,000 visitors over 10 days, including roughly 15,000 students in organized school groups.
“We’re not anticipating any change in our attendance at this point at all,” he said.
The number of registered school groups appears unaffected, he said, although many schools traditionally don’t book ahead and just show up. Johnstone noted the Royal is just a longtime tenant of Exhibition Place, like the CNE, with no role in locking out IATSE members.
“I feel it’s a little bit of a shame if you’re targeting those kids coming into the Royal,” Johnstone said.
“For many of them this is the only opportunity they have to see farm animals … and learn about food and how it gets from farm to table. It seems the emphasis on not coming to the fair is a bad byproduct of the dispute that has nothing to do with the students or what we’re trying to communicate with them.”
Antheunis said the lockout has cost his members a chunk of their income, and the city has refused the union’s request for binding arbitration or to engage in meaningful negotiations since talks broke down just after Labour Day.
Some progress in “side discussions” could have been built upon at an Oct. 26 meeting of the two sides — but it has been postponed, he said.
“If we had met Oct. 26, even if took 24 hours or a couple of days, as long as both sides were willing to get a deal done we would have it in place before the Royal Winter Fair started,” Antheunis said.
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider