Contract Talks Between Actors' Equity and Broadway Producers Heat Up

News   Contract Talks Between Actors' Equity and Broadway Producers Heat Up Contract talks between Actors' Equity Association and Broadway producers have taken an acrimonious turn. Nearly two months after discussions began, the League of American Theatres and Producers president Jed Bernstein has accused the performers union of "hypocrisy" concerning the critical issue of compensation on touring shows.

To the surprise of no one, the proliferation of non-Equity touring shows has emerged as the central issue in this year's talks. The Production Contract—the pact currently at stake—governs Equity work not only in Broadway shows, but in national tours. The union has long been upset over the increase in non-Equity road shows, many of which sprung from Equity Broadway productions, such as Oklahoma! and The Music Man.

The League, meanwhile, is frustrated at having to pay Broadway prices for Equity actors appearing in touring production, while on-the-cheap non-Equity tours eat away at regional markets. A May 24 letter from Bernstein to Equity's Alan Eisenberg expressed shock and disappointment that Equity won't recognize that "the road warrants special economic consideration."

Bernstein's May 24 letter was spurred by a recent agreement between Equity and Troika Presentations regarding a coming Evita tour this fall. Troika, which is not a member of the League, has sent out several non-union road shows in the past. According to the League, Equity approved "a reduced tour of Evita this Fall. From our standpoint, there should be nothing further to discuss on the road issue in our contract negotiations. Treat us as you treat non-League, non-Equity producers and our members will be able to send more Equity productions on the road." [The emphasis is the League's.]

Equity responded that its new deal with Troika brought the producer "into the tent," union-wise, winning higher salaries for union performers than the company had previously paid to non-union actors. It also noted that Troika won its deal by opening its books, arguing, in a statement, that "[Equity] will be flexible about the road provided that the League offers financial information in support of its alleged need for relief and that the League agrees to license shows only to producers who pay any newly negotiated rates. To date, the League has provided no financial information, even though this date was originally requested by Equity in April, 2003... In any prior circumstance where a lower rate has been negotiated by Equity, the producer has willingly opened up the financials to demonstrate why a lower rate is necessary."

The League is seeking lower compensation rates for Equity actors in touring shows. Currently, Broadway and touring Equity performers receive the same pay, $1,354 a week plus $770 per diem. A League spokesperson said the producers organization recently inked a new deal with the Broadway stagehands union, Local One, in which the powerful IATSE local agreed to accept lower wages on touring productions. Equity has good reason to be worried about the changing job landscape in the touring world. The union has seen the percentage of road shows equipped with Equity talent drop from 90 percent 10 years ago to 60 percent last year. The change has not only had an impact on employment among union members, but also decreased rank and file insurance coverage.

As with many industries in recent years, Equity has struggled with soaring health insurance cost. League producers contribute a certain dollar amount a week per actor into the union's health care plan. With fewer actors working on the road, less money has gone into the pot. Last year, the plan ran at a $16 million deficit. This forced Equity to change its eligibility requirements in October 2003. Where a member once had to log in 10 weeks of work annually to quality for a year's coverage, that actor must now accumulate 20 weeks a year, or 12 weeks a year for six months coverage.

The drastic change has resulted in a great many Equity workers getting thrown off the plan, including Equity president Patrick Quinn. (Quinn is not automatically insured because he is a union officer.) Equity has also eliminated dental coverage for its members.

Equity has asked the League to aid the situation by upping their fund contribution to $56 more a week per actor, according to Crain's—a whopping 55 increase, according to the League.

Both sides stress that talks have not yet broken down, and will continue. The pact expires June 27. However, Equity has taken the customary administrative step of issuing a strike authorization vote.

Sticking firm in the memories of both the producers and the union is last year's four-day strike by the musicians union, which was backed by Equity, the powerful stagehands union and several other theatrical guilds. The work stoppage cost millions to Broadway showmen, who would not like to see history repeat itself. The musicians union has said it would support Equity in its talks, the New York Times reported.

The League has teamed in the talks with non-League producers such as Disney and Dodger Stage Holding in a process call "coordinate bargaining." This strength in numbers strategy was approved by Equity.

Prior to the commencement of talks, Equity filed unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board against Dodger Stage Holding, as well as Clear Channel Entertainment, the Nederlander Organization, Equity charged that each had violated the Production Contract—the pact that rules Equity's work in Broadway and touring shows—by engaging the services of NETworks, Troika and Big League Theatricals, all of which produce non-Equity producers. Representatives for the League, Clear Channel, the Nederlanders, the Dodgers and Buena Vista Theatricals Ventures Inc. will all be at the negotiating table.