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   September 2, 2015

Labor Day, Unions for Artists and the Value of Unity

by Kate Shindle

AEA President Nick Wyman

President Kate Shindle

Depending on whether you still receive a hard copy or have “gone green” with our online delivery, this month’s Equity News will reach you either just before or just after Labor Day.

On the annual calendar of American holidays, most are pretty easy to understand at a glance. Labor Day, though, is something of an outlier. It’s more often recognized as the unofficial end of summer — or referenced by those who treasure their traditions as the day to pack up their white clothes — than identified as a celebration of and homage to the working men and women of our nation.

Here at Equity, we take Labor Day very seriously. Our union, of course, had not yet been founded when the first Labor Day was commemorated on September 5, 1882. It would be another fourteen years until Equity’s predecessor, the Actors’ Society, sought to distinguish between “responsible and irresponsible” managers and began a decades-long pursuit of a charter from the American Federation of Labor. As Robert Simonson points out in Equity’s centennial history Performance of the Century, “by the 1910s, working conditions had become unendurable. Actors were not paid for rehearsal. They were made to buy their own costumes. They were abandoned when shows failed on the road. Contracts were regularly broken by unscrupulous producers.” On May 26, 1913, Actors’ Equity was born. But it wasn’t until August 1919 that a month-long strike galvanized actors in eight cities and won support from the AFL, IATSE, the AFM, and many others. Actors, we who spend most of our lives competing with one another for employment, became galvanized by the knowledge that unity and solidarity create more favorable conditions for all.

Obviously, our industry has changed dramatically since those early days, as has our union. What began with 112 actors at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel on 59th Street has now grown to an association with more than 50,000, working dozens of contracts and codes in hundreds of theaters across America. In addition to salaries and work rules, Equity regularly bargains for better health care, pension coverage and retirement fund contributions. Equity members had 292,712 paid work weeks for the 2013-14 season alone, and nearly 5,000 new work weeks were added. By nearly every metric, the first hundred years of Actors’ Equity were a resounding success.

But as much as things change, of course, there are also things that stay the same. Equity will always be unique among labor unions, because the work we seek is unpredictable and often ephemeral, and the hiring process is intensely subjective. Even our sister stage unions have a much more robust supply of jobs. A spot op can light pretty much any show that requires a spotlight; a violinist can play any show where violin is necessary. But no matter how carefully and thoroughly I refine my skills, I know that there are many shows in which there is simply no role for me to play.

Finally, there will always be those who argue against the value of unions for actors: because they feel that union membership somehow denigrates artistic integrity, because they believe actors to be incapable of selflessness and collaboration in the pursuit of the common good, or — most often — because they seek to divide us and deprive us of the power we have found through collective bargaining and solidarity. They ask our deputies to negotiate directly with management, because it’s easier to intimidate one actor or stage manager than it is to pull a fast one on the business and contract reps who work on behalf of all of us. They remind us, in ways spoken and unspoken, to be grateful above all for the performance opportunities they provide, and how many others would be happy to have our jobs if we prove too “difficult.” And they point the finger at Equity’s rules and regulations when workplace conditions become a challenge. Because if there’s one thing that the more unscrupulous forces in our business can agree on, it’s that conditioning our members to distrust their own union makes it easier to get around the rules.

Equity is not a perfect institution. But one of my priorities over these three years is to build an environment in which our actors and stage managers feel comfortable asking questions. The staff and officers of this association have no goal aside from looking out for our members. We do, of course, have to keep an eye on the bigger picture and maintain an institutional knowledge that may guide our decisions in a counterintuitive way — which is really just a fancy way of saying that our members will sometimes question Equity’s decisions. And that’s fine; in my experience, shutting down discussion and dissent is a remarkably effective shortcut to the land of institutional failure. It is our job to recognize the ways in which concessions in Colorado can affect our members in Louisiana, even though they seem like different markets with little in common. And it is also our duty to operate in good faith, with as much transparency as possible. Fortunately, I can’t personally identify a better way to operate. Although we obviously have to eventually make decisions, I find discussion and debate tremendously exciting.

I am grateful to those pioneers who, a hundred-plus years ago, gathered in a Manhattan hotel united by one common belief: that an actor’s desire to create art does not supersede the right to be treated fairly, the chance to be compensated for our efforts, or the regard for ourselves as valuable creative collaborators rather than simply work for hire. If you want to know more about Equity and become part of the process, I welcome your participation. And if you want to be inspired this Labor Day, I strongly recommend Alfred Harding’s terrific book The Revolt of the Actors. As we determine together where we will go from here, it’s great to remind ourselves where we have been, and what we have learned from it.

Contact President Kate Shindle at


From the President Archives

President Shindle's Inaugural Column

Labor Day, Unions for Artists and the Value of Unity

When in doubt, ask The Actors Fund

On Gratitude

Unsung Heroes

Changing the World, One Benefit at a Time


On Progress

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