CLEAR GOALS FOR THE ROAD
In case you hadn’t heard, the First National Tour of Tootsie is going out non-Equity. As if this news wasn’t bad enough on its own, a hiring process for a full Equity tour had already taken place—with offers made to our members—before the rug was pulled out from under them, and their promised jobs taken away.
This would be devastating during normal times. But with all our workplaces shuttered, and the stage managers and actors of Equity left in uncertainty about when any of us might have jobs again, it’s absolutely catastrophic.
Our members deserve better. Workers deserve better. People deserve better.
I'm angry, and I know that you are, too. Angry at the loss of work for our members. Angry at the loss of promised income and health weeks. Angry that after getting bona fide offers of employment, Equity members were simply tossed aside—told in the middle of a global health and economic crisis, “Sorry, we just don’t need you anymore.” It makes my blood boil.
But just as importantly, I'm angry because post-pandemic, stage managers and actors heading out on the road deserve to have union protections. We all know that being on tour brings with it its own particular set of challenges under normal circumstances, and the thought of workers being asked to travel the country for paltry pay, no benefits, and with questionable safety standards is infuriating. We don’t yet know what a safe return to work will look like, but at the very least we know that Equity members won’t be forced to re-enter workplaces that haven’t been cleared by experts. Those who are eventually hired for this non-Equity Tootsie tour will have no such assurance.
Now, you may know that Equity and the Broadway League have mutually agreed to sit down and negotiate a new unified touring agreement—eliminating the touring section from the Production Contract and eliminating the existence of SETA as a "second tier" agreement. All commercial touring produced by the League would simply fall under one umbrella. This is very important, because a new agreement has the potential to mean an agreement that's better suited to organizing more of the road.
Of course, these plans were laid before the COVID outbreak, and it remains to be seen if these negotiations will happen on schedule. But whenever we do sit down to the bargaining table, it will be critical that we have some very specific goals.
First, it will be essential that the top tier salaries on this new touring agreement be equal to or greater than Production Contract minimums. The most successful Equity tours perform in houses significantly larger than Broadway theaters, playing to very high capacities, and reaping extraordinary profits. There is simply no reason that SMs and actors working on blockbuster properties like Hamilton, Wicked, or The Lion King on the road should be paid a cent less than their counterparts on Broadway. Anything lower should be a dealbreaker.
Second, our bottom line must hold firm. Some members see the existence of any non-Equity commercial tours as a failure of organizing by Equity. I disagree. There are always going to be some tours that will only ever be profitable on a model that is unacceptable to our members, both in terms of wages and working conditions. We have always known that we could "capture" a greater percentage of the road by loosening and lessening our standards. That would be a mistake in my view. Our job as union leaders is to uphold certain minimum standards for our members, and I believe the line drawn in the sand by Equity must stay put.
It remains uncertain when these negotiations will actually take place, and it's impossible to predict what the state of the industry or the world will be when we eventually sit down to the table. Rest assured, however, that our bargaining partners will use this opportunity to seek significant rollbacks in standards for our members on the road. Consequently, our third priority must be for Equity to be willing to come to the table with robust proposals that put our members' needs first. Good faith bargaining can only lead to mutually-beneficial outcomes if both sides advocate forcefully for their own interests. Too often in our history, Equity's leadership has seen it as their responsibility to use negotiations to safeguard the wellbeing of our employers. I assure you, our employers can do that all on their own. The only way that the outcome of these (or any) negotiations will be fair to our members is if we are willing to vigorously champion and defend our members' needs: jobs, wages, working conditions, benefits, and safety.
Finally, whatever we seek to achieve, me must be organized. Again, our members are angry. And anger can be very useful if it's put to good use. By the time we make it to the table, the stage managers and actors of Equity around the country need to be ready to take up the cause—not only to rally around our negotiating team, but to make it known to our employers that unacceptable outcomes will be met with real consequences. I know from meeting with our members across the country that many are itching for a fight when it comes to non-Equity touring. They don't like seeing big, profitable shows playing big, major theaters in big, major markets without jobs for their fellow members, and they're willing to stand outside those theaters and make that known. There is energy to be harnessed. It's finally time to take advantage of it.
Successful outcomes require clear, definable, achievable goals. These are mine. As you make your decisions in the coming election, I encourage you to demand specificity on this—and every—issue that's important to you as a member of Actors' Equity.