#75 Unions Part 3

I was a member of USA Equity, having joined while I lived and worked in New York City.  Equity covers the theatre business, including dancers in theatre productions.  (Ballet dancers in the USA are generally covered by AGMA, which is another union)  Equity in the USA was and is a powerful organization but what I had liked best about being a member of Equity was my access to information.  In NYC, Equity has a large room filled with bulletin boards and on each these boards are notices of auditions – hundreds of them!  If you needed a job – hop down to the Equity office; check out the notices and go!  There were a lot of opportunities and all you had to do was get to the auditions and hope that your talent would get you the job.  If not – try another audition.  As a USA Equity member, you could join their Canadian counterpart – which I did when I moved to Canada.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  When I arrived in Toronto, I needed to find a job so I went down to the Equity office to check out the job board.  I asked at the front desk and was directed to a tiny room which had two small bulletin boards, each holding a couple of job notices of which the audition dates had already passed.  I went back to the front desk and asked again.  Yes – I was in the right room and yes – those were the current notices.  “Pathetic,” I thought and left.

Now as an Equity member, I am not supposed to work in my industry without an Equity contract OR their permission to do otherwise.  While in NYC, I received a call from my Equity rep regarding my violating the union’s rules by performing with non-union companies without permission – apparently I was currently performing in Kansas City.   I pointed out to my rep that I had a pretty common name AND that he wouldn’t be talking to me in NYC if I were actually in Kansas.  Remember – this is the pre-cell phone era.  The matter was dropped.  Canadian Equity doesn’t have the clout that its USA partner has.  Although I did work for a few companies that went through Equity to hire my services, most of the companies I worked for and certainly all of the independent choreographers did not.  They simply didn’t have the financial resources to hire a dancer at union prices (which included health benefits, insurance, etc.).  Plus it required a lot of patience to deal with the hassle of endless paperwork and bureaucracy to obtain a waiver.  To make my working life easier, I chose another route.  When working with companies within Equity’s jurisdiction, I went through Equity.  When working with non-Equity companies, I didn’t tell Equity.  Considering that I tended to choose my work by who I liked versus who paid better, Equity didn’t hear from me for a long time.

With my own company, I am the only Equity member.  About seven years after I started my company, I received a call from Equity.  They had just received one of my company’s performance notices and I was in violation of working without an Equity contract.  Considering that my performance notices had been mailed to them for the past seven years, this must have been the first time that someone actually read it.  According to the Equity rep, I needed an Equity contract to work with my company.  I pointed out that I didn’t pay myself and that my work as a creator and as the artistic director was pretty much ongoing so the definitions of “work period” were a little bleary.  She insisted that I go through their office and obtain a Guest Contract.  OK – now I need to give myself a contract so I can work with myself.  I questioned the logic.  “Well,” she insisted, “If you become injured during your contract, the company will have to pay a percentage of your wages.”  “Yeah but, any percentage of zero is zero.”  She stopped for a second but continued to argue.  I changed my tactic.  “You know, you don’t really have a category within Equity that addresses the needs of creators.  I am not the only member in this organization who ignores you.  There are many creative people in this city who have special needs both in terms of timelines and financial considerations.  I think it is time that Equity looks into this issue.  If you want to start a committee to explore these issues, I would be more than happy to work with it.”  I was given a special waiver to work with myself.  The committee has not been formed yet – as far as I know.  I called back six months later to tell them that I was working with myself again.  I was informed that my waiver was good for a year.  It’s probably time to call them again because I’m still working with myself.

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