How Unions Made Magicians Disappear

Sunday, my wife and I took the kids to the Magic Castle, a supper club in Hollywood where you have a fine meal and then see several magic shows. It’s one of our favorite places to go, so fortunately we have a friend who’s a member, as it’s a private club. During our brunch, my friend (an amateur magician, scholar of magical history, and my undergrad mentor) told us the following titbit about magical history and the role unions played.

In the early-mid 20th century, the big performance halls became unionized by the stagehands and orchestras. All productions were required to have an orchestra, even if no music was performed. So magicians would have to cover the cost of an orchestra that just sat there without playing a single note. And they would be required to use the local stagehands, which they couldn’t allow because those stagehands wouldn’t know how to properly handle their often delicate magical apparatuses (apparati?).

So magicians were forced out of the big theaters, and into smaller theaters and school gymnasiums. Ironically, this actually made them more accessible to small town folk, because it brought top magicians into their town venues that otherwise would have been passed over. But it limited the earnings of the magicians themselves.

There’s no doubt unions can be beneficial–if it’s your job they’re looking out for.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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28 Responses to How Unions Made Magicians Disappear

  1. Pinky says:

    For a truth, I used to hire magicians for promotions I produced in high school auditoriums and movie theaters.

  2. the innominate one says:

    I thought this was going to be about the Magicians’ Alliance and their threat to Gob to say goodbye to his legs.

  3. “There’s no doubt unions can be beneficial–if it’s your job they’re looking out for.”

    Disclosure: My grandfather was International President of the Machinists Union in the 80’s

    Who elses job should they be looking out for James. They have a fiduciary responsibility to their members.

    As someone who has experienced some of the negative affects of the workplace of today where on 7% are union and most of that is public not private, I have to hope that things take a major shift back the other way for a long while to achieve some balance again. Did things get out of whack where an autoworker was making as much as they did? Yes, I have met midwestern factory workers that own two or three houses in retirement for pulling a lever or something similar while I will never see that as a college educated teacher.
    But things have gone so far the other way there is not meritocracy anymore. Employers do whatever they want whenever they want.

    Now for your capitalistic principles, of which if I understand you I agree a lot with, if the goal is for people to do what they want to do and make as much as they can because it lifts the whole boat they why do people get mad when people band together to create leverage to make as much as they can? Unions, at the most simple level, are the most capitalist thing you can find.

    This is coming from someone who has no problem with guy who is willing to play by some simple rules that makes billions and builds 15 houses to live in two weeks out of the year. It keeps people working building and maintaining the houses not to mention what his business produces. The problem is that 25% of this now is people trading money from one entity to another and as we see often times illegally.

    So why is it ok for the Billionaire to make all he can and the little guy cannot do the same? A real capitalist should be absolutely pro-union in principle. We can talk about dangerous excesses once that is established.

  4. James Hanley says:


    Who elses job should they be looking out for

    Unions boast that they are good for everyone, collectively. The point is that, as you note, they have a duty to their members, and to no one else.

    why is it ok for the Billionaire to make all he can and the little guy cannot do the same

    Where did I say it’s necessarily ok for the billionaire to make all he can and the little guy not to? The issue is the method, not the result. Unions band together to coerce money from others. If the billionaire has coerced money from others, via government regulation, etc., then I don’t say it’s ok to make all he can. If the billionaire is like, say, Bill Gates, who has made his billions by making a product that people freely give him money for, with no coercion, then it certainly is ok.

    Your mistake is to pose billionaire vs. poor man. I pose earned freely vs. earned coercively.

  5. I think we agree then. Good point about the unions saying they are good for everyone. I think the biggest mistake they made was getting into politics. My Grandfather was one of the ones that really pushed it too. It is hard for me to say that because I looked up to him but you have a valid point.

    With that said, and you may have some statistics that disprove this because you are a numbers guy, but my understanding is that when the Union drives up wages it forces non-union companies to do so as well. At least that is what I have always heard stated by the unions.

  6. I did not see the coerced part there before I replied. You have to elaborate on that.

  7. James K says:

    There are only 2 ways that could occur (and it seem plausible to me that it would occur):
    1) The unions are transferring monopoly rents form the firm producing the good to it’s workers. This is neutral from an efficiency perspective, but may have some nice distributional consequences.
    2) The union is restricting labour supply. This is efficiency reducing and help works in the industry at the expense of the would-be workers who are forced out.

    I think this is why unions seem to shine in uncompetitive markets – it lets them benefit their members through 1), rather than 2). It might also explain why unions don’t like free trade very much as liberalising trade increases competition, and consequently reduces monopoly rents.

  8. D.A. Ridgely says:

    I have an uncle who was a magician and who performed his greatest trick walking downtown one day when he turned into a department store.

    Thank you, thank you very much.

  9. James,

    Is one business man combining with another to create leverage against a third business man in negotiating a deal coercion? If not then you mis-lable what workers are doing when the contract together for leverage. In the most simple sense. Again I know there are abuses.

  10. King of Ireland,

    I cannot speak for what Mr. Hanley meant, but I can think of two ways in which unions, as they currently operate, might be said to be coercive:

    1. In states where the “union shop” is legal, a legally recognized union may require that employees contribute union dues from their paychecks whether they wish to pay or not.

    2. In strike situations, would-be strikebreakers might face (depending on the workplace culture and the union in question) ostracization and, in some cases, even violence. I admit that ostracization is pretty mild, but it is “coercive,” in my view. I also admit that the specter of violence is often (usually?) exaggerated, but it can and does happen, and has happened. (Employers, of course, have often resorted to violence, too, and I don’t mean to excuse them.)

    I don’t believe that coercion is categorically bad, and maybe such innovations as automatic dues checkoffs are, like taxes (pace libertarians), both necessary and beneficial in the long run. But these innovations are coercive in that someone is compelled to do something regardless of whether he or she wishes to do it.

  11. Fair enough. My point that whether you call it coercion or not businesses do it to create leverage all the time. You meet force with force. Only negotiating can being fair value for one services. Or really for a product too. Market forces had to include labor costs but it does not mean they are not free if people pursue the right to negotiate the best deal for themselves.

    This is the one stream of Liberatarian thought I think is absurd. It fact, as I read more about it it is becoming a deal breaker for me. I would absolutely hate to see the world the last 200 years without unions. It would have been a nightmare. It curbed the power of capital which really, if we are honest, much of which had already been obtained through some sort of coercion or oppression in many cases. This is the reall world where people have to live and eat.

  12. James Hanley says:

    Is one business man combining with another to create leverage against a third business man in negotiating a deal coercion?

    I’d need more detail to give an answer. I can imagine combination that are illegitimately coercive, and I can imagine those that aren’t.

  13. James K says:

    I think there is a difference between saying unions should not exist and saying they are too powerful or too well regarded. Unions offer some good thins to their members and the basic principle of Freedom of Association suggests that attempting to ban unions would be wrong. But it seems to me that compulsory unionism through closed shops violates Freedom of Association as well.

    And unions engage in a lot of political activity. In New Zealand members of the Engineering Printing and Manufacturers Union (the largest union in the country) are granted rights as voting members of the Labour Party automatically, and right now the same man is president of both organisations.

    My impression is that people are naturally suspicious of corporations, but view unions as benign. My attitude is to be suspicious of both (especially when they are acting politically), while recognising the benefits each organisation can bring.

  14. One could say the same about unions. Legitimate is a loaded and subjective word.

  15. James K,

    The problem with a right to work state is that people get the benefits and do not pay into the system that obtains them. It is a free lunch. Where is the justice in that?

  16. We all have to abide by the decisions made by 51% of the voting population. What is the difference?

  17. James Hanley says:


    That’s why we carefully restrict the range of decisions that can be made by the voting population. Majority rule is the most functional way to decide certain collective questions we can’t avoid dealing with, but it’s precisely because we recognize that it’s coercive that we put some issues outside the scope of their authority.

  18. Thus not all coercion is bad then. My exact point. One you admit by saying there are both legitimate and non-legitimate ways of coercing for businesses. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

  19. James Hanley says:

    That’s quite a leap you took, there, King. You must have had a rocket pack. You go from the assumption that some coercion is legitimate to the conclusion that I must accept some specific–albeit unspecified–coercion. Where is the funeral for logic going to be held?

  20. No,

    All I am saying is that what is good for the goose is good for the gander and you dodged the first question by saying sometimes yes sometimes no. In other words, coercion is acceptable in some negotiations by definition. Thus you cannot categorically deny that all union coercion is wrong. From there we can discuss different circumstances for sure.

    You first statement on coercion was a sweeping one. Though I am sure unintended. Believe we can talk for hours about all the stuff I see wrong with unions today. But it does not mean the concept is flawed in itself. That is my only point.

  21. James Hanley says:

    By saying, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” you’re implying that one instance of coercion justifies some other, unspecified, instance of coercion. And that’ s just plain silly. For example, coercing the Nazis out of France, etc., was very justified. That doesn’t mean raping a child is. So we can’t say that one justified coercion thereby justifies others. So the fact that I think in some cases a political majority can coerce a minority (say on speed limit laws, or banning pollution) does not in any conceivable way lead to the conclusion that I have to agree that unions coercing money from others is OK. I can’t even believe you would make such a leap of logic, then stand by it. Even if I agreed that unions could legitimately coerce money from others, that belief would have to stand on its own, and would not follow from the other statement. That’s so obvious I can’t believe I am needing to spell it out.

    That’s why I have to have more specifics on what you mean–which so far you’ve failed to provide–before I can answer your damned question. Contrary to your false claim, I didn’t duck it. I explicitly said it didn’t have enough information in it for me to be able to answer. For pete’s sake, we all learned that in elementary or junior high math, right? If you’re asked, “what is n + y,” with no specification beyond that, the only legitimate answer is, “there’s not enough information to answer this question.” When you just ask “can two businessmen coerce another,” I don’t know if you’re talking about killing Nazis or child rape. Do you mean coerce him by threatening never to do business with him again, or do you mean putting a fucking gun to his head? They’re not the same thing at all, you know.

  22. IN NEGOTIATING A BUSINESS DEAL. Like I stated. Which would imply gaining leverage to get the best deal. I guess I assume you would understand by legal means. So if two business men lets say pull their resources together to get something done that neither could do on their own but together can do and end up getting a better deal from the business men trying to get their services is that coercion or negotiation? Let assume that the third guy would make more money by keeping the companies seperate.

    Feel free to add any missing factors before answering. But I think we both know what the answer is going to be. If it is what I think it is then you should have no problem with one worker teaming up with another worker to negotiate a better deal than they can get seperately. There is no differene. It is not coercion to me it is negotiation and leverage and it makes the world go round.

  23. You read way too much into my original question.

  24. “You must have had a rocket pack. You go from the assumption that some coercion is legitimate to the conclusion that I must accept some specific–albeit unspecified–coercion”

    I never got into any specifics as you stated was what was wrong with my question. Just becuase coercion is not neccesarily unjust does not mean that all coercion is ok. I am just pointing out a flaw in logic on capitalists that hate unions. That is if the idea is to make as much as you can make as long as you play by the rules it should be ok for the workers to do it too. You call it coercion if the union does it and we shall she what you call it if the business man does it.

  25. James Hanley says:

    I don’t see where the coercion is in negotiating a business deal. Have you ever been involved in business negotiations? I have, albeit not a lot, and I don’t recall any coercion. Attempts at leverage, sure, but that’s not necessarily coercion. I mean, sometimes the greatest leverage is just getting up and acting like you’re going to walk out–but that’s not coercion. But I’m not going to add the missing factors for you–it’s your claim, not mine.

    So basically I just don’t know what this coercion is that you allege. You’re claiming a flaw in the logic of criticizing unions, but you still haven’t showed me anything that shows me actual coercion in a business deal.

  26. I do not think it is coercion James that is the point. No one calls is that. But, in its simplist form that is all a union is doing. So is would seem we agree that the concept of a union is not coercion in and of itself. I know this is simplistic but one has to start with the principles inherent in unionization and they move forward in a discussion of the particulars.

    I repeat if they point is to leverage your power to get the best deal you can then unions are the most capitalistic thing out there in their purest sense. I know history and experience are filled with exceptions to this rule but it does not mean we throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    I think the biggest drag they have been lately is not moving on with the program of the shift to the new economy. They for the most part have been Luddites. So instead of a well trained workforce ready to adjust to the new type of manufactoring job we sputter. People are simply going to have to move out of the Midwest to where the new jobs are and will be. The unions have hindered this and prolonged the inevitable.

    I do not think many people think that the Industrial Revolution was a bad thing for the world. People back then thought it was Armageodon. Why do we assume that the Information Revolution will be a bad thing? It does not have to be as long as people adjust to the new type of work.

    Trouble is that I do not think anyone is totally sure what that looks like yet in a real way.

    Anyway, my two cents. I think we probably agree more than we disagree.

  27. James Hanley says:

    No, we don’t agree that a union is not about coercion. I don’t know where yo get that idea. But since you’re still not being specific enough in your examples for me to actually respond clearly to your question, and still conflating leverage and coercion in a meaningless way, I’m not interested in continuing what has obviously become a very pointless debate. It’s just not possible to give specific answers to questions that are couched in such vague generalities.

    Up above you mentioned two workers teaming up together to negotiate a better deal. That’s fine, but that’s not what I was talking about in the original post. Not at all. You’re a very frustrating person to debate, you know? You shift around, refuse to get specific, imply claims I haven’t made, etc. I gave it a try, but it’s just impossible.

  28. “Up above you mentioned two workers teaming up together to negotiate a better deal. That’s fine, but that’s not what I was talking about in the original post”

    I am talking about the idea of Union’s in principle and your are talking about specifics. That is the disconnect. I am not even saying you are wrong in your specifics above I am saying do not throw out the baby with the bathwater that is all.

    I am not a detailed oriented person and you are I think that is where the frustration occurs. I was just to flesh out where you are coming from not fuck with you. I promise. I think I see where you stand and I do not think we disagree that much on this in principle.

    You are released go in peace. 🙂

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