Equity in the 21st Century

You won't get me....

There was a time when the Equity card was the holy grail of anyone aspiring to work in theatre or variety. Get your Equity and you’d arrived, that was it, from then on it was all plain sailing. It least it was.
Equity was then what it’s always been, a trade union with a clear mission to protect its members. Now you no longer need to join Equity (or any other union) to work in show business. So why should you join Equity? Is the card still a little object of desire?

Mike Cain is Equity’s Northwest Regional Officer. His office is on the edge of Manchester city centre. It’s busy; papers and leaflets piled high around us, and the phone rings almost constantly.

I asked him about Equity’s changing role.

Equity’s role is more or less what it’s always been. Our job is to work with employers to represent the best interests of our members.

What action will you take?

We’re not here to attack people. If a relationship has broken down between one of our members and an employer then we’ll do our best to negotiate an equitable solution. If the employer has acted in good faith but simply doesn’t have the skill or knowledge, for example to implement Statutory Sick Pay, or issue correct tax documents then we’ll sit down and help them. If the employer is not acting in good faith then we’ll take any action necessary, including Court action and we’ve done that very successfully. If we discovered an employer was paying below the National Minimum Wage (NMW) then we would certainly pursue that and we would sue to recover lost earnings for our members.

Do you have problems with unscrupulous employers?

Rarely thankfully. We have agreements which cover terms, conditions and minimum rates of pay etc., repertory and commercial productions are covered by agreements with the TMA, the Theatre Managers’ Association. Small touring companies are covered by the ITC, the Independent Theatre Council. We also have agreements which cover TV and film. A lot of members think we can only assist them if they work on Equity agreement terms; we can certainly do more who work on our agreements but I for one spend a lot of my time dealing with basic rights issues which arise for performers when working outside of our frameworks.

Any horror stories?

We did have a case of a company, obviously not using an Equity agreement, which demanded so many extra hours from its actors it was paying below the NMW. It refused to pay statutory sick pay, and when it cancelled a show because one of its actors fell ill, tried to sue her for loss of earnings. The actor was new to the business, and very upset and worried by this. There were some technical and contractual issues involved but we were able to prevent any damage or action against our member as well as underline the basics that this employer should have been aware of.

What are the benefits of joining Equity?

If any of your readers are working professionally in the performance industries I’d refer them to our website or ring me at the office.
The leaflet ‘A Question of Values’ outlines the benefits for Equity members.

  • Insurance covers personal injury, theft or damage of personal effects backstage and public liability.
  • Legal advice is probably worth the membership fee alone; Mike is available 5 days. He can also call on specialist advisors in Equity head office in London.
  • Equity distributes royalties for film, television and audio work. There’s a fee for this but it’s heavily discounted for members.
  • Job Information Service – any member can phone a databank of vacancies in their field.

Do you think that the end of Equity’s closed shop has refocused Equity’s identity as a trade union?

Certainly. In many ways though the Union’s modus operandi and structures are as strong as ever. Merseyside has a Variety Branch which meets every month and only last year the North West of England General Branch was formed to provide a focus for actors, stage managers and background artists across the region.

The Merseyside branch was involved in the campaign last year to keep the Neptune Theatre open.
Equity is lucky to have some very articulate and committed people working at branch level. The Liverpool branch is particularly strong. It can be an advantage Equity being a union for trained and enthusiastic communicators.

Mike’s obviously very able and very keen to help, but the quality of services that the union provide cost, and obviously this depends on member subscriptions. Membership costs 1% of gross income, with a minimum of £62 a year or £1.19 per week. Your subscription gets you a range of benefits and the peace of mind of knowing that if you do hit a problem you can pick up the phone and tap into a national network ready and willing to help you. There are other sources of advice; citizens advice bureaux, ACAS, the Inland Revenue, but none will fight your case for you harder than a good union.