This past spring, after more than a year of on-and-off negotiations with the League of American Theatres and Producers, the AFM reached a new agreement covering touring shows. But even as the agreement was being signed, other producers were stepping up efforts to put more nonunion shows on the road.
A nonunion production of Music Man was in fact touring during the latter stages of the negotiations and was the focus of AFM and Actors’ Equity Association organizing efforts. League producers watched these efforts carefully and threatened to challenge the right of conductors to be covered by the agreement. As a result, the AFM put that organizing effort on hold. But Equity petitioned to represent the actors and is expecting the NLRB to set an election date this month.
This fall, Music Man has been joined by a nonunion touring production of Miss Saigon. Producers are threatening additional nonunion tours and using that threat as a hammer to lower actors’ and musicians’ wages. All of this seriously threatens the recently negotiated wage and benefit rates for touring musicians. Those rates in the AFM’s Pamphlet B touring contract provide for a minimum side musician weekly wage of $1,006.13 with a weekly per diem of $784. The contract extends through March 31, 2005.
Broadway has done well over the last decade and so has the touring end of the business. Last year, producers grossed over $600 million from their touring productions and there are a number of new shows that are expected to do well on the touring circuit.
Despite this, there is an increasing threat to union wage levels, benefits and working conditions because of the growth of nonunion touring shows. The weekly compensation for musicians on nonunion tours is typically little more than half of the total AFM package. Benefits are rare or non-existent.
Clearly there is a need for stepped-up organizing efforts on the part of the AFM, Equity and the other theatrical unions and guilds. Each organization has in the past depended to varying degrees upon union discipline to force productions under contract – for example, by insisting that members not take work on nonunion tours and relying on the inability of the producers to find qualified people outside the unions’ ranks.
That approach put far too much of the onus on underemployed musicians and actors and not enough on producers. For the latter, there seems to be no limit to the level of exploitation they are willing to impose on often-younger actors and musicians who badly need employment. We have become aware of tours paying as little as $300 a week with $175 per diem for both room and board.
Adding to the threat of these nonunion productions is the power and growth of the companies behind the nonunion tours: Big League Theatrical, Troika and Pace/SFX/Clear Channel. The latter controls an increasing number of prime road venues and local advertising outlets. It is estimated by one source that together these companies’ road tours may be as much as 40 percent of the total business.
Both the AFM and Equity have recognized that there are different levels of touring shows, and have had some experience in fashioning agreements that recognize the differences. Tours that sit for weeks at major venues in major cities and have potential grosses of a million dollars or more a week are covered by the standard union agreements. Musicians, actors, stagehands and others in virtually all of those are union.
Just below these are tours that spend one or more weeks in cities both large and small with typical gross potentials in the range of $300,000 to $600,000. Wages, benefits and union standards in these shows are most threatened by the nonunion productions of Music Man, Miss Saigon and the touring productions of State Fair and Jekyll and Hyde from years ago. (State Fair eventually signed an AFM agreement but, due to resistance from a principal actor, never reached agreement with Equity.) They should be under contract. They can afford to pay union rates and they pose the greatest threat to union standards.
A third tier includes the split-week bus-and-truck shows that often have far lower gross potentials. Both the AFM and Equity have lower-budget agreements for these shows that still provide musicians and actors with fair levels of wages and benefits.
Protection of the hard-won gains of musicians, actors and other theatre employees depends both upon organizing and upon an increasing level of cooperation among the theatrical unions.
But the cooperation and assistance of members is critical. If you are called to work on a touring production, notify the Theatre or Organizing departments immediately. Do not assume the tour is union no matter who calls you for the work. Your call will be kept confidential.