Actors’ Equity: Lessons for a Business Union from a Scrappy Solidarity Union

In July, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the union representing the actors and stage managers of live theatre, made an explosive announcement: it would now be much easier to join. Since its inception, access to membership of AEA has been difficult to say the least. There have historically been two ways to achieve Equity member status. You could perform in a show in an “Equity” theatre on an “Equity” contract — though many Equity theaters only give out a handful of Equity contracts, rounding out the the cast with non-union performers. The other route was to participate in the Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) program. Under this program, prospective union members had to perform in an Equity theatre, on non-Equity contracts, for 50 weeks (recently reduced to 25 weeks).

If this all seems complicated, it is. AEA’s recruitment method has been practically dependent on a scab workforce, and the presence of that scab workforce has slowly eaten away at AEA’s bargaining power. AEA membership has been seen in the theatre community as a status symbol, obscuring for many members (and potential members) what it means to be a union. With access to AEA out of reach for so many, growing numbers of talented performers have joined the industry but not the union, so much so that producers have seen an opportunity to shirk the union as a whole and produce non-Equity theatre. Because of the growing number of non-Equity shows, the vast majority of acting jobs are non-union jobs, causing even many AEA-eligible performers to forego joining the union.

So, what was AEA’s latest move? It announced it was ditching the previous paths for membership, and now all you need to do it prove you’ve worked in a professional theatre and were paid for it. Cue the theatre community gasp. Backlash was swift, with criticisms both valid and heinous. Just take a look at the comments section. I’ll admit, some of the memes are hilarious, but I can’t help but feel that the ridicule is indicative of a larger disrespect for unions from a community that is supposed to be progressive. However, what has been most disheartening has been seeing so many current members up in arms about the “degrading” of our union.

 Current members do have some valid concerns. AEA mandates auditions for Equity shows, which only members have access to. You’ll hear from current members that the influx of new members will make it impossible to get seen. To that, I say, “It’s already impossible to get seen.” In an industry flush with talent but light on jobs, these auditions are already notoriously crowded; you’re lucky if you can get in the room at all.

The criticism that there just aren’t enough jobs to go around for Equity members is true. But there aren’t enough Equity jobs because so many workers stay non-Equity. The bottom line is, if producers are able to hire equally talented performers at half the price and none of the protections, they will.  For theatre-goers, there may not be much difference in the quality of a non-union show, versus a union cast. After all, there is no shortage of talent in this industry. The casual audience member may not realize that while their ticket prices remain similar, a smaller portion of that money is going to the workers providing the service. The only quality that suffers, is the worker’s quality of life. The biggest difference between union and non-union shows (especially in the touring realm) is that those performers are working twice as hard for half the money. And as long as you are willing to work a professional’s track, but not demand your worth, you’re weakening not just our union (the one you will hopefully join one day), but the idea of unionism and collective bargaining as a whole.

The criticism I see most, is that AEA’s move is a money grab. To that, I say, “Maybe. So, what?” The intentions may well be nefarious on the part of Equity’s Council, but the Council only has the outsized power it has because we let it. AEA holds elections regularly, but turnout is abysmal. Too many of us see our union as a body that protects us, rather than a body of us protecting each other.  See, the first successful union drive I was ever a part of wasn’t for Equity at all. I was recruited off the shop floor by my union, Stardust Family United (SFU). SFU was in the midst of a bitter legal battle with our employer, and I had been unwittingly hired as a scab after the wrongful termination of 31 workers. We won our legal case about reinstatement, but the win was in part because the tenacity of the union and its dedication to organizing everyone. Rather than create an environment of animosity with the scabs, the remaining SFU members recruited us right off the shop floor. We still win, to this day: when something at work needs fixing, we band together and demand its fixing. For example, the air conditioning was a chronic problem in the summer months (as I understand it, it had been for years) and in the summer of 2019, the staff staged a walkout, and ownership found solutions to keep the room cool by the next day.

Which brings me back to AEA. Too many members aren’t engaged, and if there is anything I’ve learned from Stardust Family United, it’s that it takes every one of us acting together to make change. Perhaps it’s because AEA’s negotiating is more concerned with salaries than day-to-day conditions; perhaps it’s because the union is just so big. I don’t know why it is so much harder to engage AEA members than it is for SFU members, but I would guess it is because there hasn’t been a recruitment culture instilled to us as AEA members, or a history of taking collective action.  

It takes courage to stand up to a boss, but it takes collective discipline to be effective. If we want Actors’ Equity to be a union of the future, not a relic of the past, we need to engage every future member, disillusioned current member, and those who swore they’d never join. If the 3 Equity members in a 20-person cast can’t recruit the other 17, did the union really have any power to begin with? In fact, if the 3 union members point out a problem it is entirely likely that production will fix the problem for only the three union members. In an industry where we are constantly reminded that we’re replaceable, it can be pretty terrifying to stand up for yourself. We’ve been trained since our BFA programs to roll over to power, lest we get “blacklisted.” It’s time we teach the money behind theatre that the talent in the theatre sticks together.

Ryan Patrick Smith is an actor, singer, server and bartender in New York, who belongs to both Actors’ Equity Association and Stardust Family United.