Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why does Actors' Equity work, and what can we learn from it?

A while back I read an article about how the Toronto production of In The Heights was non-unionized, and that got me thinking and googling about how unions work in show business.

Every union with which I'm familiar is specific to an employer - you work for the employer, you join the union. But actors' membership in Actors' Equity does not seem to be tied into their employer, probably because the nature of acting is multiple temporary jobs. They join Equity, then any production that hires them has to give them the employment conditions set out in the collective agreement.

Wouldn't that be awesome? Wouldn't life be so much better if other jobs worked that way? You don't have to negotiate your salary half-blind (How much do other people get paid for this job? What's the employer's budget?), you just have to do your job well.

But, as the article about In The Heights describes, there are also some shows that don't use unionized performers at all.

But why does the union still work? Why don't all producers just use non-unionized performers and refuse to use unionized performers? A bit of googling suggests that all the best performers are in the union, but what factors are leading the producers to conclude "The best actors are in the union, therefore we should hire unionized actors" rather than concluding "We'll just hire non-unionized performers until the unionized performers give up. Even the best performers have to eat - they'll give in eventually. And if they don't, how will audience know what they're missing if the best performers aren't working?" Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that it does work, but why does it work?

And how do we recreate this phenomenon in other fields, so people could enjoy the benefits of a union even in today's precarious employment environment?


laura k said...

This is something I think about a lot. I've been waiting for time/space to write a post similar to this, although not about Equity.

Equity and SAG work because of exclusivity. Every actor has to join to get work, and every production has to use Equity/SAG contracts in order to hire talent.

And (unfortunately for the rest of us) it works because actors are not interchangeable - unlike employers' view of cashiers, cleaners, typists, factory workers, etc., where if one leaves, another one just as good can be had for less.

High-profile, in-demand actors understand their own labour history and don't break ranks. If you want them, you take the union. If you don't want the union, you end up with crap talent.

It's the same for professional athletes. In-demand and not interchangeable.

I didn't know The Heights was non-union, I'm so out of local news these days. Thank goodness I'm out of ticket-buying as well.

This touring company is doing things on the cheap, and trying (successfully, I suppose) to drive a wedge in the talent base. It means the show uses crappy actors, and it probably means those actors will never work in an Equity production again.

I wonder, do the ticket prices reflect the money they're saving on salaries?

I have a friend who is active in Equity. I'm going to send him this post, maybe he will comment.

laura k said...

In the US, I was active with the National Writers Union, a union for freelance writers. It was not very successful or powerful because most writers are considered interchangeable, and too few writers with name recognition (non-interchangeable writers) were on board.

Plus editors only hire one writer at a time, not a whole cast, so there's very little leverage, and solidarity is almost impossible to achieve.

Anonymous said...

Producers go to Equity performers for several reasons, and certainly not the least of these is that Equity is where the talent lies.

But Equity is also where the professionalism lies, which is of almost equal value to a producer. The knowledge that your cast will show up on time, prepared to work and consistent in their performance is immeasurably important.

Equity is now 99 years old - it was created because of the exact working conditions that current non-union actors are forced to endure. If there were no AEA, it would have to be invented.

You should know as well that producers, for the most part, have a terrific relationship with AEA. To a large extent, that relationship borders on that of a partnership, rather than just an employer-employee dichotomy. The rules governing employment under an Equity contract are, and have always been, extremely reasonable. And the percentage of production costs taken up by the Equity cast has remained relatively constant for decades.

Producers come to Equity because they want our actors, and they want the security that having those actors under Equity contract provides. And if you want to know more about why we're here, pick up a copy of The Revolt of the Actors, by Alfred Harding.

impudent strumpet said...

it probably means those actors will never work in an Equity production again.

Does this still apply if they've never worked in an Equity production before? I have this idea (absorbed from the ether somehow, not from what recent research I've done) that you need to perform professionally before you're allowed to join the unions.

Conversely, if that idea is wrong, we have the opposite question: why do people perform in non-equity shows at all?

@Anon: Does Equity have any mechanism to ensure that its performers are talented and professional? (Training, standards that you have to meet to become a members, etc.) Or is it just that all the talented and professional performers join Equity?

laura k said...

I wonder if anon is my friend who I invited here.

Re not working in Equity productions again, I don't know if Equity does that. I was basing my comment on other unions that penalize scab work. Several major league baseball players who worked during the 1994 strike cannot be union members and will never receive union benefits.

You don't need professional experience to join Equity. You need to get hired into an Equity show.

There are lots of small productions that operate non-Equity with Equity's permission. This one in Toronto isn't one of those!

laura k said...

How to join Actors' Equity

That was my friend, btw. Nice to still have one contact in the theatre world.

impudent strumpet said...

How do baseball players manage to work when they're on strike? Did someone organize a whole new set of teams and game schedules with the scabs or something?

Lorraine said...

I always assumed all Broadway™ productions were union label. THANK YOU for the heads up!

allan said...

After the players went on strike in August 1994, management cancelled the rest of the season, playoffs and World Series.

The following spring, with the strike still on-going, management decide they would get "replacement players" to fill their rosters: minor leaguers, formerly retired players, and any MLB players who wanted to cross the line. Some did. And so spring training started. Things did not get very far, though, and the strike was settled - and the start of the season was delayed a little bit.

Some of the scabs did make it to the real major leagues, but there was not really much anger at them, at least not after the first year or two after the strike.

impudent strumpet said...

Now that you mention it, I remember "replacement players" being part of public dialogue at the time. I just didn't retain it because it isn't relevant to me.

Portia said...

I'm so proud of Anonymous and laura and allan...

I wrote my MFA thesis at Yale School of Drama on theatrical unions. Feel free to ask me anything. I forgot everything, but you're always free to ask.

laura k said...

[Portia is anonymous' ex-partner, one of my closest friends. My goal is to have everyone I know comment on this thread.]