The Medieval Times Union Campaign Is Over

The union for Medieval Times workers informed the dinner-theater company Wednesday that it no longer intends to represent employees at two castles that organized, bringing an end to a colorful labor campaign that excited union supporters and inspired endless jokes about serfs and lords.

Workers at the chain’s castles in Northern New Jersey and Southern California bothvoted to form unions in 2022 with the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. But neither group managed to secure a collective bargaining agreement with Medieval Times, as it waged an aggressive counter-campaign to undermine the union effort. 

AGVA declined to represent the Medieval Times workers after it became evident the union no longer had the necessary support to succeed in its contract battles, said Erin Zapcic, an actor who plays the queen at the Buena Park, California, castle and was integral to the organizing effort.

“Their intention was not just to beat us; it was to destroy us,” Zapcic said of the company. “I’m certain we cost this company millions of dollars [in legal costs] and they were willing to continue to spend that money to get rid of us.”

Medieval Times representatives did not respond to repeated inquiries from HuffPost regarding the union campaign and the company’s reactions to it.

The demise of the Medieval Times campaign is a reminder that winning a union election is not the end of the battle, but is often just the beginning. Employees at other formerly non-union companies like Amazon, Starbucks, REI and Trader Joe’s have recently notched major election victories and now find themselves in bruising contract battles with their employers. It sometimes takes years for unions to win a collective bargaining agreement.

Susanne Doris, the executive secretary-treasurer of the American Guild of Variety Artists, said ending the campaign was a painful decision. She credited union members for a “valiant” effort.

“This was not an easy thing to do,” Doris said. “We’ve been fighting for more than two years.”

When Medieval Times’ actors, knights and stablehands launched their union campaign, they were hoping to secure better wages, which were close to the legal minimums in their areas, and improve the safety culture at their castles, saying crowd control was poor and actors were often subjected to harassment. The company operates nine castles in the U.S. and one in Canada.

Their intention was not just to beat us; it was to destroy us.Erin Zapcic, Medieval Times queen and union leader

Medieval Times fought the campaign from the start. 

Before the election, the company hired an anti-union consultant to the tune of $3,200 a day to persuade workers against organizing. It later doled out raises to non-union castles while withholding them from the castles that unionized. It pursued, and then lost, a trademark infringement lawsuit against the AGVA over the workers’ adopted name for their union, Medieval Times Performers United. (It appealed a judge’s order tossing the case.) The company even succeeded in getting the union’s TikTok account banned.

“The company did everything you would expect them to do,” said Purnell Thompson, a former stablehand who helped lead the union effort at the New Jersey castle. “It was all textbook.”

Thompson said a lot of workers who initially supported the effort grew impatient amid the long fight. 

“There are times when we didn’t do a good enough job preparing people for that,” he said. 

Workers at the California castle went on an unfair labor practice strike last February, saying the company was refusing to bargain in good faith. The strike was meant to pressure Medieval Times into reaching a contract. The company flew in replacement knights — “scabs,” in union parlance — to fill in for those who’d walked off. 

Zapcic said it was hurtful to watch so many customers — including one she remembers with his union logo tattooed on his neck — crossing their picket line each night.

“Don’t cross a picket line,” she said.

Performers at the Buena Park castle went on strike for nine months.
Performers at the Buena Park castle went on strike for nine months. MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images via Getty Images

The strike ended up lasting nine months. The strikers returned to work hastily in November to avoid being permanently replaced and to combat an effort brewing to purge the union. Zapcic said the new workers who had crossed the picket line helped diminish the ratio of union supporters inside the castle. 

Zapcic said returning actors who’d struck were required to do long unnecessary rehearsals, she believes to segregate union supporters from other workers. The knights, she said, spent much of their first day back shoveling manure, as if they were “day-zero squires.”

Medieval Times refused to reinstate a knight and union leader named Jake Bowman, accusing him of “misconduct” while on strike. Bowman had leveled allegations of horse abuse at the castle. The union called his lack of reinstatement “blatant, illegal retaliation.”  

Several workers ended up quitting not long after returning from the strike, Zapcic said. She estimated that of the 27 strikers who returned to work, only seven remain there now. The union argued that several workers were “constructively discharged,” meaning the company pushed them out by making their jobs unpleasant. (It’s not clear whether such allegations will continue to be litigated now that the union will no longer represent the workers.)

Meanwhile, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a conservative anti-union group, was helping employees in both New Jersey and California submit petitions to the labor board seeking to decertify the union through new votes, according to the group’s ownaccounts

The company did everything you would expect them to. It was all textbook.Purnell Thompson, former Medieval Times stablehand

No such vote has come to pass at Medieval Times, but Zapcic said it became clear there was no longer sufficient union support at either location to win a contract. She said a strong majority of workers at the New Jersey castle recently signed a petition sent to the AGVA requesting the union there be an “open shop,” meaning no one would be required to pay dues.

The NLRB’s prosecutor has filed complaints accusing Medieval Times of breaking the law in several ways, including by allegedly silencing the union on social media and interrogating workers at an Illinois castle about their union activity. The board recently conducted a trial involving the social-media charges but a decision hasn’t been issued yet.

Such charges can take years to litigate, and the penalties for illegal behavior are often toothless under the law. If Medieval Times is found to have pushed out union supporters, it may be ordered to offer them reinstatement years after the fact.

“We’ve been failed by every system we put our faith in,” Zapcic said.

Thompson left Medieval Times in November, worn down by battles with the company and the politics of a small workplace. He attributed the union’s end to a number of factors, including the inexperience of organizers, a lack of resources and sometimes poor communication with co-workers. He understood why some wanted out of the union when the campaign got more difficult.

“I’d do it all again — just better,” he said.

Zapcic, who has worked at Medieval Times for 13 years, also said she has no regrets. The nine-month strike showed workers at other castles that they could assert themselves with management, she said. And she believes the company gave non-union workers raises only because it feared the union campaign would grow.

“It sucks that we don’t benefit from our hard work, but we are leaving a legacy,” she said. “No one in the 40 years of Medieval Times’ history has stood up for themselves the way we did.”