Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Less Perfect Union

In regards to yesterday's post, I should mention that my views on unions are mostly informed (and skewed) by my own membership in a notoriously weak union...of freelance actors and stage managers. About all we have in common with the TWU is that we're both in the AFL-CIO. I don't have any statistics on this, but I'm quite confident that the demographic breakdown of our members is very different. We've chosen to work in theater instead of more stable careers, and our jobs are freelance by nature. A show can close on one week's notice for any number of reasons. The MTA isn't suddenly going to close Brooklyn due to poor ticket sales. Those jobs are secure, as is the company, which can hardly just shut down. However there's nothing forcing people to produce theater, and in some cases nothing forcing them to do so under a union contract if they do.

If the MTA gets screwed financially, they'll have to find the money somewhere. If producers get screwed financially, they'll stop producing, or they'll raise ticket prices so much that audiences stop coming and then they'll stop producing. So if Equity "wins" too much financially, we negotiate ourselves right out of jobs. They simply won't exist.

Equity has fought hard recently to protect those union jobs (especially in touring productions, which aren't regulated the same way Broadway and the major non-profits are), and they do a great deal to make sure we have safe and clean work environments, and don't get overworked or exploited. But the pay raises? Not so much. Which is not to say that many of us don't make a good living (not talking about stars here). Broadway actors and stage managers get paid quite well, as do those in larger off-Broadway or regional theaters. Some contracts, though, pay less than unemployment or minimum wage. It's a very wide range. And of course that whole pesky freelance thing.

As grateful as I am to have the union behind me most of the time, it can be difficult to impose labor rules on the creation of art (or even of entertainment). Some of the more arcane rules meant to protect me actually get in my way. While some situations are "us vs. them," in many cases (and fortunately for me, most of the work I've done lately) my employers are also my friends and collaborators. We're all in it together, and all want what's best for the success of the show. The inherent (and generally necessary) inflexibility of most of our contracts can even result in shows closing instead of allowing producers to find creative solutions to keeping everyone employed through a slump. It's especially tricky for stage managers, because we're in the same union as the people we're managing, so we have to play both sides. (There's been much debate about this in recent years, but there's little to be done at this point. There aren't really enough of us to form our own union, and we don't quite fit into any of the existing ones.)

Because of the freelance nature of the business, Equity is the one constant in our employment (and even that's not entirely true for actors who also work in TV, film, etc., and are therefore in those unions as well). The union takes on many roles traditionally filled by employers, such as the pension and health plans (your actual employer puts money into the funds on your behalf each week that you work for them, and your eligibility to receive benefits is determined by how many total weeks you work in a year), 401(k), and even a credit union.

And of course, many of us spend a great deal of time NOT working under Equity contracts. This doesn't necessarily mean we're unemployed – we could be working "survival jobs," going back to school, working in a different medium with a different union, or simply taking time off from the business, but keeping our membership active just in case.

Anyway, this has gone on longer than I intended, but the point is that my union – and my professional life in general – and the transit workers' are like apples and orangutans. My opinions on the strike and on many of the TWU's demands remain the same (summary: Aaaarrrrgghh!), but I thought it fair to fully disclose some of these things that inform my point of view.

Damn, I hope something funny happens to me tomorrow. This blog has been much too heavy lately.

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