A Modern Union

actors equity los angeles footlightsActors’ Equity Association, the labor union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States, is getting ready for its annual elections. Out of fifty thousand members, the hope is to get ten thousand members to participate. Should that effort succeed, the result would be a significant increase over the number of votes cast in 2015. And 2015 was actually a spike year in voting, due to more than 40% of AEA members in Los Angeles turning out to cast a vote, most in protest of a union action.

At the very core of that protest, however, are issues that should absolutely be resonating, not just in Los Angeles, but also with the entire national membership of AEA, and at the same time, should be giving the union some insight as to why the voter turnout has traditionally been so low. The basic questions are:

  • Is the union leadership responsive to the needs and wishes of membership at large?
  • Is there transparency in the actions by staff and council toward membership?
  • Does the AEA leadership encourage and empower its members to participate in the decision making process of the union and do members have the means to communicate easily with leadership and with each other in a way that would facilitate that participation and create broad consensus within the union membership?

In a very real sense, all of these questions boil down to a single but complex idea: communication. In an age when we have the capability to instantly reach any single individual anywhere, or reach masses without obstruction or cost, why is an organization, charged with the welfare of its membership, constrained by processes that were put into place more than 100 years ago?

When AEA was formed in 1913, the telephone was not yet a fixture in most homes. If you wanted to talk to someone outside your neighborhood, your best bet was to send a letter, or if you wanted the message to get there quickly, a telegram. So putting together a bunch of actors in a hall, in the city where most theatre originated, seemed like a great way to communicate, organize, and build a union.

The needs at that time certainly presaged many of the needs we have today – wages, working conditions and attention to what happens to actors out on the road. But here’s the problem. This was a union that was built in New York, and one which has continued to be dominated by a New York perspective. In 1913, if American actors had any hope of making their way through life as an actor, there was only one destination – New York. That’s where shows were built; that’s where the stages were; and that’s where you had to be if you wanted to book a job, or even tours.

There were 112 people involved in forming AEA. By 1919 that number grew to 3000, but all of AEA activity was based in NY and about NY. Today, AEA claims a roster of 50,000. And only about 25% of them live in New York. How has that impacted the relationship of the union to it members? In 2016, is New York still the only place where actors can hope to thrive? Is the only career path for actors and stage managers still only to work out of New York?

While for some, Broadway stardom is still a dream, the realities of the actor’s life are that there are far more opportunities for members outside of New York, and way more than there are on Broadway. In every city, in every state, there is professional theatre, in every town and every village, down to every dust-covered crossroad that has any population beyond a single family, there is often theatre. So, what does that mean in terms of theatre ecology? What does it mean to career advancement, and what does it mean to all the professionals who come to realize it is the art which drives them, not the promise of New York and stardom.

And therein should lie the responsibilities of the AEA. A union by definition is “an organized association of workers, often in a trade or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests”. The implication is that its goal is to attend to the needs of all the members, and that the welfare of the members goes beyond the job they’re working this week, or the job they may find next week, next month, or next year. The welfare of a member is not merely about a paycheck. It’s about offering its members a prospect of building a career.

Let’s be realistic. When the average member of AEA makes less then $8,000 per year. When only 10% of our membership make a living above poverty level, and only 3% make a living wage, are the membership’s interests being protected or furthered? Or has our union become so mired in the world of Broadway, that its rules and standards are based primarily upon the traditional needs and wants of its New York constituency? For example, how important are the practices of EPA auditions to 75% of the membership, when the region where they live has very few EPAs? It’s appreciated when an effort is made to call shows off on a winter storm day. Yet when the rallying cry of “listen to our concerns” was all but ignored by our union in Los Angeles, until the noise became so loud that national news outlets began to comment, how should we read that indifference to those concerns?

AEA has a much bigger challenge ahead. What can it do to create a working model for its members to get from earning their card, to building a career? Our union needs to be finding paths for its members to walk that will get them to a living wage, not just in New York, but in every location where AEA members live. But the world of theatre outside of New York is entirely different from Broadway, or even Off-Broadway. The LORT system has proven not to be the standard-bearer for theatre west of Manhattan. It has become more the stepchild of Broadway. How theatre is grown is unique to the local environment in which it grows. The Business of Theatre in Chicago does not look like The Business of Theatre in New York, or Los Angeles, or Seattle, or Dallas, or hundreds of other locales. Each location has unique challenges and is dealing with the growth and health of its theatre based upon the conditions of its local circumstance. Those variables must be taken into consideration if there is to be any hope of improving remuneration and opportunities for those members, which by necessity means sustaining those local theatres.

And yet we as a union are so constrained by a New York-centric perspective, and by archaic rules and means of communication that offer asystem for change are so archaic, that it becomes a herculean task just to get a resolution offered to membership at large, not to mention actually passed. In the process, there is no methodology for discovering if members at large have an interest in a particular resolution, because we can’t get in touch with each other for conversation. While there are discussion groups on Facebook and a lively Twitter dialogue, there’s no assurance or process to make sure that the entire membership is aware nor has access. Why do we not have a relatively low threshold for sending out emails to membership, and why do we not have a clear understanding or insight into the choices made by Council on matters affecting the membership at large?

Why is it that the important decisions, the ones that have implications for the entire membership, are discussed in Executive Session, in which by rule, no one is allowed to take notes or keep records? Why is Executive Session the “go to plan” when any topic of dissent is at hand? Executive sessions are designed for and practical in sustaining plausible deniability, but that leaves no one accountable. The council and the staff should be accountable to the membership.

Unions are, or should be, organizations that are built and sustained from the bottom up. Members should have easy access to process, and members most assuredly should have a right to any information on discussions that affect them on a professional level. AEA Actors do not.

A union should put the welfare of its general membership first, with the full understanding that our needs vary based upon where members are. What’s good for New York may not be good elsewhere. There will always be anomalies, but if the needs of the constituencies in regional and local levels are heard and addressed, then the substantive differences can be dealt with afterwards. The membership should either be informed about opportunities and have the union help build those opportunities, or if unable to do so, the union should get out of the way of its members and help where they can and not hinder where they can’t.

Theatre is a universal institution, it looks different everywhere, it behaves differently everywhere, but at the heart, it’s a culture’s effort to tell stories. There are now so many people interested in being a part of that effort, that the practice of theatre is becoming nearly industrial in scope. So rather than looking to force a round peg burgeoning industry into the square hole standard of old thinking, it’s time to put people in place in our union that can think beyond the catch phrase “work weeks”.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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