Last March, as I stood outside on that blustery Saturday morning and spoke with musicians, stagehands and actors on the picket line, I had the full sense of what it means to be part of the labor community. And what it means to be a part of the legacy that is Actors’ Equity.
When Equity’s founders — 112 actors — formed this union in 1913, they did so to get fair wages and treatment for themselves and their fellow actors. That simple step in 1913 began an odyssey for Actors’ Equity that has continued to this day. It established a pattern of social conscience that is very much a part of who and what we are.
Before Equity was established, actors were at the mercy of the producers. Actors paid for their own costumes and rehearsed without pay. Entire companies were often left stranded on the road. There was hardly a story that didn’t sound more like a horror tale.
JOINING THE MOVEMENT
Actors’ Equity joined the labor movement in 1919 when we gained recognition by the AFL and struck Broadway to achieve an equitable contract with the producers.
There had already been a contract in place, but most producers refused to use it.
It was clear to our early leaders that joining the labor movement was the only way to ensure members of Actors’ Equity would be treated fairly by producers and so 12 Broadway casts refused to go on.
Then other labor organizations showed their support — United Scenic Artists and the Theatrical Mechanics were among the first, followed by the Teamsters.
The strike lasted 30 days. Thirty-seven closed productions, 16 prevented openings and a loss of $3 million were the result of this show of solidarity.
Everyone in 1919 knew the importance of that single word — solidarity. It’s what I experienced last March. It’s what our founders believed in when they formed Equity.
A LONG ROAD TO JUSTICE
Equity didn’t stop with just a contract. It took a stand on a number of issues over the years — from financial abuses by some less than honest talent agents in the 1920’s to taking a very public stand in the 50’s and 60’s against blacklisting and segregation.
In the 1980’s when so many of our talented friends were losing their battles with an epidemic few understood, five Equity members created Equity Fights Aids — a first for our industry to raise funds in the battle against the disease. Along the way, we merged with Broadway Cares, and to this date an astonishing $85 million has been raised through the tireless efforts of so many theatre personnel, including the members of Local 802.
The strike in 1919, however, was a prelude to the 1960 Broadway Blackout. The issue was the establishment of a pension plan for actors. When talks broke down — each side holding to its principles — the union vowed to shut down one show per night without prior warning. The League threatened that if one show were shut down, it would close down all of the shows and it did. They called it a strike, Actors’ Equity called it a lockout and the media called it “The Broadway Blackout.”
TIME FOR A NEW CONTRACT
Actors’ Equity is now negotiating the Production Contract, which covers Broadway and touring shows, and expires June 27.
There are two items that are at the top of both sides’ lists — the issue of road shows and health insurance. The League has said it is economically impossible to make a decent profit with the current salaries and benefits.
Non-Equity tours are on the rise. In the last ten years alone, the number of non-Equity tours has doubled, reaching nearly 40 percent saturation. In the 1996-97 season, the number of Production Contract touring workweeks for Equity actors was 44,000. In the 2002-3 season the number dropped to 21,000 workweeks. That loss is a direct result of the proliferation of non-Equity road shows.
The connection between Broadway and the road tours has become stronger and more significant. Producers firmly believe there is more money to be made on the road than on Broadway and enter into licensing agreements with non-Equity producers that avoid contractual agreements for Equity shows. The producers of these non-Equity shows have developed cost-cutting strategies that include an increase of shows outside the Equity-defined jurisdiction and pressure on Equity to reduce terms for the road. The road market has been developed to such an extent that investors depend on the road to recoup, and make a profit, on their original Broadway investments.
These producers charge ticket prices that are similar to ticket prices for full Equity productions. In some cases the non-Equity ticket price is just three dollars less; in some cases they exceed the Equity production ticket prices. Yet the audience is not told the show, promoted as part of a “Broadway series,” is non-Equity and that these young, inexperienced actors have never appeared on a Broadway stage (and in some cases, travel with nonunion musicians and a partial virtual orchestra).
The actors and stage managers in these non-Equity productions receive very small salaries and negligible per diems and health insurance packages. The profit made from these high ticket prices obviously do not benefit the actors and stage managers who perform nightly and have no work rules that prevent them from grueling rehearsal and travel schedules. It almost harkens back to the reasons why Equity began.
HEALTH FOR ALL
The road issue directly ties into the health insurance topic.
With a reduced number of workkweeks for Equity actors and stage managers under the Production Contract, there are fewer contributions to the health and pension funds. Already squeezed by the high cost of insurance and prescription drugs, fewer contributions to the health plan greatly reduces the reserve monies that help fund the plan. Cuts have already been made, and with less money coming in — and the threat of weekly contributions staying at the current rate — the health insurance for members of Actors’ Equity will remain in its current state.
802 SET THE BAR
The Local 802 negotiations set the bar for the entire industry. It did more than achieve an equitable contract — it proved beyond a doubt to the League and the media what every union and guild has stated since 9/11.
And that is simply and firmly put: we stand together in solidarity. It is Actors’ Equity Association’s goal to negotiate a fair and equitable contract for its members and to continue to move the industry forward, just as Local 802 did last spring.
For more information on the actors’ fight for a contract, see www.ActorsEquity.org.