restricted access 12: Union Dues

From: Theo

University of Wisconsin Press colophon
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/ U11LOYL rnues Good iny lord, will you see the players \vell bestowed? J)o you hear, let then1 be \vell used. ~ff.·L\11.1:"/; AcT rr, SCENE 2 (f"\ URINC THE FIRST YEAR OF The So1111d of Music, 19611, the 'LJ Actors' Equity collective-bargaining agree111ent with the League of New York Theatres ran out, and the negotiations for a new contract were not going well. Although at the tin1e I was not involved with any union 111atters, I was av•lare that the situation n1ight in1pact on all of us working under Broadway or touring contracts at the tin1e. By the end of May 1960, matters became critical. The issues which led up to the strike '11-'ere unusual for a negotiation involving actors. The questions of wages and working conditions could be settled 111ore or less to the satisfaction of both sides-I say more or less because no negotiation is ever totally satisfactory for all parties-but the sticking point was pensions. Actors had never had that before; the producers argued that with the sporadic pattern of employment in the theatre, no system could be devised to achieve what the actors were after. Complicating the issue was the fact that many of the actors did not grasp the significance of the issue themselves. The younger ones, especially, were clearly puzzled about being forced by the dictates of 220 · THEO labor solidarity to be out of work and pounding the pavement over pensions from which they would derive no personal benefit for many years to come, if ever. Consequently, we argued not only against the en1ployers but also an1ong ourselves. Nowadays an actor's contract without health and pension benefits is unthinkable-just as unthinkable as a contract was in 1960 t/Jith those provisions. ()n1inous n1essages from management were tacked up on the bulletin board backstage to the effect that everyone's job was being jeopardized by Equity's demands. Pressure was brought to bear on stars who were told that they were being victin1ized by n1inin1un1 players, and chorus was told not to be idiots and go out on strike for pensions they would never qualify for anyway. On June 1, 1960, the Equity Council called a midnight membership meeting at the Edison Hotel, one half block from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, to inform the actors of the critical state of affairs. So many showed up that the streets outside were jammed with actors, creating a problem for police. Hurriedly, the n1eeting was n1oved to a larger space, the Grand Ballroon1 at the Astor Hotel a few blocks down. Pedestrians and motorists on Broadway were treated to quite a sight. Over two thousand Actors' Equity members marched down the street toward the Astor in orderly fashion, carrying an American flag, the Equity banner, and signs proclaiming the names of their Broadway shows. At the Astor, members made fiery speeches blaming the producers' intransigence for what was rapidly turning out to be a labor crisis of son1e n1agnitude. Only once before in the history of the American theatre, in 1919, had there been a similar upheaval, commonly known as the "Revolt of the Actors." It, more than anything else, had served to consolidate the collective resolve of the then fledgling actors' union not to be pushed around and made to kowtow to the whims of managements who exploited actors with impunity. I attended the Astor meeting and all the ones that followed and was strangely moved. I had reached a stage in my life when I was comfortably off and had come a long way since my days as a worker on a communal farm. Yet, despite my position in the theatre, in music, and in films, I never allowed myself to forget what I had received in my genetic knapsack from my socialist father. That included the conviction that working people as individuals are helpless and powerless unless they band together to make common cause. The actors' strike of 1960 gave the impetus to what became a serious involvement on my part for over three decades in the affairs of actors' unions. Once the strike was under way, I beca1ne an active participant in the n1eetings, spoke at son1e, and offered iny services to the union in whatever capacity it deemed helpful. Some stars of the various shows were similarly involved, while others chose merely to obey the union's directives but otherwise to ren1ain aloof. That was not iny \vay. Before each scheduled performance...


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