Equity, the trade union representing professional performers, was formed in 1930. General secretary Christine Payne explains why membership still matters...
We have two groups of young people with Equity membership: student members, who are still in vocational training, and young members – professionals under the age of 26 who have had at least one job in the industry.
One of the most important things we offer student members is registration of their professional name. In Equity, every name is unique and that’s crucial because it’s your professional identity. Student members receive a copy of our magazine and members and staff visit students in training to give advice on contracts and working in the industry. We also provide our student members with £2 million worth of public liability insurance for occasional work. While of course our student members are still in training, they’re going to do occasional work, such as taking shows up to the Edinburgh Fringe, and they need to be properly insured.
But membership is not just about contracts and being properly insured, it’s also about the fact that Equity can be a voice for your industry. We can lobby government, we can talk to the Arts Council and we can impact on legislation.
We also provide events and opportunities for student members to interact with the profession, particularly with our leading members. We find that young members like to meet working professionals such as Sir Ian McKellen (who is also a Trustee of the Union), because that’s who they can talk to about the business and about the benefits of union membership: why do leading members want to be members of a union?
Equity membership has that badge of professionalism. Things have changed since the end of the closed shop: employers can now offer employment to non-Equity members. We’ve changed our agreements with employers: instead of them saying that employers must look for Equity members in the first instance, it now says that they will look for professional performers – and professional means Equity membership.
What these changes mean is that there are people working in our industry who are not members of the union, and that’s very sad because they take all the benefits that Equity members put in and don’t put anything back. We constantly try and reach out to those non-members to explain that they’re in a very vulnerable profession, and that while they’re choosing not to be members, they’re working under a contract that gives them a minimum rate that Equity has negotiated. If that contract wasn’t there, what would they be working for? If they’re working at the BBC, they get repeats fees – we negotiated them.
We don’t have workplace branches like most unions, but if you’re in a long-running show in the West End, or on a commercial tour, or working on a six-month repertory production, you’ll have an Equity deputy who is a member of the cast and works closely with the Union to support members involved in the production.
Even so, you’re only there for however long the job is, so we have to find ways for members to connect with the union when they’re not working. It can be very lonely. When you’re a student you have a network of your peers; when you come out you need to find ways of maintaining that connection with your fellow professionals so that when you then go back into work, you’re up-to-date. It is important to talk to other professionals, go to Equity meetings and develop a new network.
Christine Payne was talking to Jo Caird