Peasant Revolt: A Dispatch from the Medieval Times Picket Line
by Anthony Pignataro
Erin Zapcic is projecting. Louder than talking, but not yelling, she’s doing what stage actors do to ensure people in the back rows can hear them—steady cadence, enunciating every syllable, putting real force behind her words.
A woman laughs nervously as she walks by Zapcic. “Good, you should laugh uncomfortably,” Zapcic calls out to her. “You’re making an uncomfortable choice for us!”
A few minutes later a family approaches. One person is filming them with a smartphone, but then stops when they get close to Zapcic. “Why’d you stop filming?” Zapcic says. “Was that not an Instagram-worthy moment?”
It’s near sunset on Wednesday, May 24: Day 103 of the strike at Medieval Times, the Buena Park dinner theater where guests can pay upwards of $50 per person to eat chicken with their hands while actors portray knights and nobles in 11th century Spain. Zapcic, wearing a black hoodie with the front emblazoned with lyrics from Taylor Swift’s “Anti-hero”—“It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem. It’s me.”—and the back decorated with the words “Strike Captain Erin,” is standing a few yards from the entrance to the “castle,” which is how all the employees refer to the Medieval Times building. The show can be spectacular, and includes jousting with real actors riding real horses.
But in November, fed up with what they see as management’s unwillingness to address unfair wages and unsafe working conditions—including the alleged mistreatment of horses used in the show—many Medieval Times performers and stable hands voted to unionize. They’re now part of the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA).
After wage negotiations bogged down, and Medieval Times itself sued the new union, alleging that its use of Medieval Times’ logo in social media posts was a copyright infringement, members voted to strike.
On Saturday, Feb. 11, a few dozen workers walked out. At first, workers say, the strike was upbeat, even fun. “We did dress-up days,” said Kate Farrell, who plays the queen in the Medieval Times show. Workers picketed Medieval Times in costume, and handed out leaflets to guests. But it eventually became clear, Farrell said, that “People weren’t taking us seriously."
The press was there to cover the strike, and included CNN, The Guardian and even Fox News. But days on the picket line became weeks, which quickly stretched into a month. Then two months. The nightly picket line shrank as striking workers took up part-time jobs to rebuild their income.
At the same time, attitudes on the line hardened, and interactions with guests became “intense,” according to Farrell. In April, a driver attempting to enter Medieval Times allegedly tried to run over some of the picketing workers while a passenger jumped out and began shoving people, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Buena Park Police made one arrest, and now station a couple officers near the picket lines each night.
Zapcic, who also plays the queen in the Medieval Times show but now works two full time jobs (one as a copywriter, and the other as a business administrator), still manages to stand on the picket line nearly every night. But she’s through being nice to guests, she said.
“Personally, every person who crosses that picket line is a slap in the face,” Zapcic told me. “We’re not an essential service. Coming to Medieval Times is a choice. Guests crossing the picket line are prioritizing their entertainment over the livelihoods of the people who work on the show. I’m tired of it, and I’m tired of being nice about it. Until Medieval Times sees an impact, they will drag this out.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Two picketing workers, including a strike captain, told me that back in February they thought the strike would last a couple weeks—a month, at most.
“I was naive,” Jake Bowman, who plays a knight in the Medieval Times show and helped organize the strike along with Zapcic. Bowman also said he was caught off guard when some colleagues—including at least one he thought shared his views on the company—refused to join the union or walk off the job.
The whole notion of actors and artists unionizing for better working conditions is relatively recent in the history of labor, according to Elaine Lewinnek, Professor of American Studies at Cal State Fullerton. In fact, in many ways it was the 1941 Disney strike, in which some of Walt Disney’s best animators struck for better wages and working conditions, that helped make clear that “cultural workers were workers,” she said.
Michael Denning, an American cultural studies professor at Yale, called this realization the “laboring of American culture” in his 1998 book The Cultural Front. For him, it signaled a “second American renaissance,” the birth of an energized left-wing culture that helped spur the New Deal reforms of the 1930s and an unfinished struggle for labor rights that continues to this day.
“I think we’re in a new era now,” said Lewinnek. She made clear that while our current times aren’t a replay of the 1930s, our pop culture seems more attuned to labor issues, with so many people watching shows like Succession, which is focused on our society’s tremendous inequality of wealth.
Indeed, Lewinnek even said that she shows the 1954 movie Salt of the Earth, a remarkable pro-labor, intersectional movie about Latino zinc miners who strike in New Mexico that was banned throughout American theaters when it came out because of it was deemed subversive (noted film critic Pauline Kael called it “Communist propaganda”). But far from being bored by the often-slow moving black and white movie, Lewinnek’s students seemed energized by the film and even began showing it to their friends as an organizing tool, she said.
“People are asking for more than we’ve seen in decades,” she said. “It feels like a different kind of conversation than what I’ve been used to for the last few decades.”
On May 2, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) struck for the first time in 15 years, calling for pay and working conditions to reflect the fact that many viewers now stream movies and television programming. The strike has already delayed production on a number of movies and TV series. The last WGA strike lasted 100 days, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In late May, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) voted to authorize their own strike, saying their members faced many of the compensation issues of the WGA. Then on June 1, retail workers at Medieval Times filed for a union election with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324.
Orange County residents should prepare for a summer of strikes, according to Virginia Parks, director of the UC Irvine Labor Center. About 100 hotel contracts went up in June, and UPS worker contracts are up in July, according to Parks. Strikes from both groups would definitely impact the county.
There is renewed interest in labor unions among workers everywhere, Parks said. In fact, they’re currently seeing the highest approval rating in 50 years, she added. “There’s a power imbalance in the workplace,” Parks said.
We may be living in a time of renewed affection for organized labor, but that doesn’t mean going on strike is quick or easy, as the striking Medieval Times workers have learned. Actually organizing the performers proved relatively straightforward, even though management provided “feasts” for the employees at the nearby Cuban restaurant Porto during its “captive audience meetings,” according to Bowman, Farrell and Zapcic (though Porto was a favorite among Medieval Times performers, these days workers on the picket line yell “scab!” across the parking lot whenever they see their replacements heading there for lunch).
During these months in late 2022, Medieval Times engaged in “unlawful” interference with them during the months leading up to the November 2022 union vote, according to a National Labor Relations Board complaint filed on May 2. Management “encouraged employees to participate, gave guidance, and otherwise provided unlawful assistance to employees in the creation of and filing of a petition which sought to withdraw support from the Union,” according to the NLRB.
It was the same story at the New Jersey castle, which also unionized in 2022. In fact, the company’s alleged behavior at both castles was so egregious, U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, both Democrats from New Jersey, wrote to company officials on May 3. In their letter, the senators noted that three Medieval Times locations had received $21 million in federal pandemic relief funds at the same time the company was engaged in “union busting” (a Medieval Times spokesperson didn’t respond to my request for comment).
“It is unfortunate to see your company spend company funds mere months after receiving millions in taxpayer dollars on union busting,” Senators Menendez and Booker wrote in their letter. “We no longer live in a time where your company can use government funding to squash peasant revolts.”
Regardless, the Buena Park castle is now apparently spending whatever it can on keeping the show open, including flying in performers from other non-union castles and putting them up in local hotels. Doing so is far more expensive than simply meeting the union demands, Bowman noted to me, but if Medieval Times wants the union itself gone, then the company may be prepared to spend even more.
With the strike entering its fourth month, the picket line itself has shrunk, as most performers got themselves part-time jobs to pay expenses. Where the union could get a few dozen workers on the picket line in February and March, Bowman and Zapcic were lucky to get a half dozen by the end of May.
While the union does maintain a Gofundme strike fund that’s so far raised about $50,000, the money vanishes once workers begin asking for rent, Bowman said. Those who do draw from the fund are strongly encouraged to show up on the picket line, he added.
The length of the strike, and the fact that press coverage dwindled after the first month, has led many people to think the action ended, union members told me. Brad Whitfield, a non-combat actor who’s worked at Medieval Times for 11 years and once played the king until the show was rewritten a few years ago, said that he’s often met with shock from guests when they see him standing in the parking lot with his “Knights on Strike” sign.
“Sometimes I get snide remarks,” he said. “But for the most part, people don’t understand. The trick is figuring out how to be aggressive with people. It’s a tough call.”
Anthony Pignataro is a freelance journalist. He wrote for OC Weekly in its earliest years, and in its final months. He also somehow wrote three trashy detective novels about Maui. He lives in Long Beach with his girlfriend Angie and their cat Gromit.