One of the great privileges of being Equity's Eastern Regional Vice President is being able to attend the annual Membership Meetings in each of the region's Liaison Areas. And despite spending most of my first year as VP out on the road with The Play That Goes Wrong, I was still able to creatively manage my travel schedule and get to some of these very important meetings. I'm happy to say that Philadelphia was my very first.
I have a long history with the City of Brotherly Love, as my dad's side of the family is from the area. He grew up in Haddonfield, I played street hockey with my cousins in Cheltenham as a kid, I still have aunts and uncles and cousins living in Cherry Hill, and one of my sisters even went to college at Bryn Mawr. My childhood was filled with trips to the Franklin Institute, the Museum of Art, Franklin Court, and tours of the U.S. Mint (we were nerds.) And there was almost always a stop in Chinatown involved. Needless to say, my love for Philly runs deep.
So when I heard there was a meeting scheduled in Philadelphia for a Monday night, I jumped at the chance to go. We wrapped up our run at the Kennedy Center the night before, and were starting performances in Toronto on Tuesday. I hopped a train from D.C. to 30th Street, and hauled my bags onto a Market-Frankford line train to get to my hotel.
Now at this point, two years into my Vice Presidency, I've been to a lot of Membership Meetings. Some I remember more broadly, with my takeaways centered on certain themes or general concerns that the members seem to have reached consensus around. For some meetings, though, the lingering memories are of very specific interactions I have with individual members, and such was the case with that very first meeting in Philadelphia. I will never forget what one of our members said to me that night.
She was a woman who was obviously a respected local actor—she knew everyone in the room, and her words commanded immediate attention and respect. She said "I worked on an Equity contract during almost every week of the past year. And yet, I don't qualify for health coverage. Why is that allowed?" There were lots of nods of approval from the members in attendance. Here was a well-known and constantly employed union worker, and yet she had no benefits to show for a year's worth of work.
It opened a great conversation, and exposed an obvious need. There are an extraordinary number of full Equity employers in the Philadelphia area—four theaters using the LORT contract just within the city limits, more than a dozen SPTs, plus about a half dozen LOAs—with many of their contracts going to local stage managers and actors. But there are also more than two dozen producers using pre-paid agreements like Special Appearance—a contract that doesn't come with required health payments, nor the robust provisions of a full Equity agreement.
Equity's pre-paid agreements were designed as organizing tools—giving smaller theaters an opportunity to dip their toes into the water of using Equity members, with the goal of eventually negotiating them onto full agreements in the near future. But there was an obvious frustration at this meeting that many long-established producers has simply set up shop as Special Appearance users, with no seeming intention of ever "leveling up."
This member who spoke up should be credited with planting a seed that has the potential to bear some pretty significant fruit for our members in Philadelphia and beyond. Since that meeting, I—along with some fellow Councilors and Equity staffers—have been doing a comprehensive review of our organizing model, examining not only how we determine when it's appropriate for a producer to use these pre-paid agreements, but also formulating and codifying an idea for a better model for independent theaters.
It is very often a perception of inflexibility of Equity contracts that scares potential bargaining partners away from becoming full Equity producers. I'm hopeful that this new model being conceived of will empower our Business Reps to negotiate contracts that are more relevant to the needs of Philadelphia members and producers, allowing for long-lasting, mutually-beneficial relationships moving forward, and creating incentive for more producers to partner with us. As we all seek to emerge from our current crisis together, this will be a key piece of moving towards a much-needed member-driven recovery.
In my next term as Eastern Regional Vice President, I will be working hard to see this project through to its fruition. And I will always be eternally grateful to this woman who chose to speak up, and helped start a process of change for our members and our union.