NEW YORK CITY: Association for stakeholder equity announced “Open Access,” a new membership policy that will allow those who have worked professionally in the United States – defined here as actors or stage managers who have received compensation for their theatrical work – to join the union, with immediate effect. Equity, which currently represents more than 51,000 professional actors and managers, previously limited eligibility for union membership to those who worked for an Equity employer (either by direct contract or through the Equity Membership Candidate program) or to members of a sister union. This change marks Equity’s effort to expand access to unionized jobs, wages, benefits and workplace safety provisions.
The old system had a significant flaw: it made employers the gatekeepers of Equity membership, with virtually no other route to join, Kate Shindle, president of the Actors Equity Association, said in a statement. The entertainment industry is disproportionately white, including and especially theatrical leadership. The union unwittingly contributed to the systemic exclusion of artists from BIPOC and other people with marginalized identities by maintaining a system in which being hired to work these contracts was a prerequisite for membership. We hope that artists from all walks of life will join us in building a union that uplifts the entire theater community, especially those who have not felt included or welcome in the past.
The new program is extensive, including the union reaching out to former members to reinstate without the need to obtain a new equity contract (as previously required) and opening membership to actors and managers who can. have a country of origin or residence outside of the United States. In addition, Equity will allow former members and applicants to apply their initiation fees previously paid to their application under this policy and new members will have three years to pay the initiation fee of $ 1,700.
The changes within the actors and managers union follow a year of turmoil among its membership base, which rallied against inconsistent and sometimes frustrating COVID-19 restrictions limiting work (and causing hardship for members to reach their required work weeks for health insurance) and pushed for greater racial equity within the industry. This last point was part of a April March on Broadway, in which the directors protested the inaction against Broadway producer Scott Rudin as well as the union’s shortcomings in protecting its members from the racism, sexism and dangerous work environments many had experienced. As Backstage reported back in april, the fallout has seen some players withhold their union dues.
This result, along with the general lack of work (and therefore payment of dues) for Equity members over the past year, has led some on Twitter to speculate that the access movement could have a dual purpose: expand access to the union and open the door to an influx of money from a flood of new members. In an interview with Backstage, Shindle brushed off that sentiment by saying, “I’m telling you the honest truth from God when I say that no part of it looked like some kind of money grabbing.”
The full fallout from this shocking industry decision has yet to be seen, with major non-stock markets like Chicago certainly shaken by the decision and some players concerned about the more crowded union hearings. Importantly, many see hope in exactly what Shindle pointed out in his statement: opening up access in this way has the potential to break down the hiring barrier between actors and managers and union protections.
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