The Power of the Union

The topic of union membership is one that often comes up among actors. Given that belonging to a union has long ceased to be a required step on the way to a professional career, what, frankly, is the point? Paying a percentage of your wages to a body which can seem at times like a theoretical entity, a vague kite mark that faintly whiffs of a different era, may seem fruitless, particularly when said wages are less than ample.

However, something happened recently which demonstrates why this perception couldn’t be further from the truth, and why our individual voices do matter.

For some time now, a particular “casting director” (and I use quotes because the gentleman in question is actually a foley artist) has been enthusiastically posting jobs on Spotlight and other platforms for an astonishingly wide array of work – video games, audiobooks, cartoons, feature film ADR, etc. All the jobs have shared one common element, however: the fees listed have been shockingly low, undercutting industry custom and practice across the board, the caster begging impunity by labelling all of them “non-Equity.” For instance, a video game job was listed for £200 for the day – which might sound like a lot of money, until you realize that for any other company that job would pay upwards of £600, plus a potential buyout.

Agents have grumbled. Actors have complained to each other and to Spotlight, with little success. Warnings have been posted on Facebook forums. But it looked like the caster would get away with it, merrily reeling in less experienced actors and those desperate for any kind of paid work. The better informed have rolled their eyes and avoided his postings like the plague, and everyone has sighed over the continued exploitation of actors. But what can you do?

Well, as it turns out, quite a bit. A couple of weeks ago, a few of us noticed that said caster had posted a film ADR job, specifically looking for American actors (as he often does). Now, film ADR falls under the PACT/Equity Cinema Films Agreement, a fine document which I and several other Equity members on the Cinema Films Working Party helped negotiate. The caster was offering £150 for four and a half hours. Under the agreement, the job is worth over £300, including statutory holiday pay, with overtime payments for anything over four hours. However, as usual he had marked it “non-Equity” – so did it qualify?

A couple of us had been talking to Equity about the caster in question over several months, so when we contacted the union about this posting, they were already alerted to the issue. Within a few minutes, the organiser came back to us, confirming that the job did, indeed, fall under the PACT/Equity agreement, and that just labelling it “non-Equity” didn’t change that fact. A film shot under the PACT/Equity agreement must budget for all aspects of production, so it wasn’t that the money wasn’t there. The caster had the full budget to properly pay the actors – he had simply been choosing not to.

The organiser immediately contacted the caster and by the end of the day, the job was  reposted, this time offering £289 for four and a half hours. Which was almost right, but not exactly. He had left out the statutory holiday pay and the time still wasn’t right. Undeterred, Equity went back to the caster again. Long story short, the notice reappeared the next day, offering the full sum of £303 for four hours – and what was more, it was now marked as an “Equity” job. And all because a few of us Equity members had talked to the union.

The story isn’t over. We were able to pull the guy up because in this instance he was breaching an Equity agreement, but as we all know, agreements don’t exist for every area of work, due to the difficulty of negotiating when there isn’t a particular trade body or company to negotiate with. However, he is now aware that he can’t just make up fees, and that the union has him in its sights. With luck, and continued pressure from all of us, he may well fall into line for all the other areas he casts. This is important not just for us actors, but for the other companies in the industry who do pay actors proper fees and work under proper terms and conditions. When someone underpays actors, the other consequence is that their budget undercuts the competition – and the decent companies struggle to compete.

So you see, the union is important, and individual members do make a difference. Elections will be occurring shortly for a number of Equity’s industrial committees; maybe now is the time to stand for one, and see just how much you can make your voice heard.