So it’s the morning after my last performance with Welsh National Opera’s production of William Tell. Naturally I’m feeling a little worse for wear, so you’ll have to forgive my rambling writing… But it seems there has been a lot of discussion about Unions and Equity’s work for dancers in the recent fall-out from ROH discussions.
It also seems there is a lot of speculation and misconceptions about the recent work in Equity and the fundamentals of what a Union actually is and how it works.
So I’d like to clear up a few things, and bust a few myths..
Equity is not a service.
Equity is by definition a unified group of workers. Therefore if the membership and involvement of dancers in the Union is bad, the work of the Union for dancers is bad. Because the members make all the decisions.
Before we open the can of worms that is opera, I think its worth highlighting all the unsung work done by Equity and Unions that goes under the radar. Notably some high profile instances where poor conditions have been flagged up by workers and then resolved by Unions; the Kylie Minogue dancers ‘scandal’ in Australia was eventually resolved by Actors Equity in Australia, The CocaCola notice for unpaid dancers was taken down after an Equity statement and huge outrage online, the instance at ENO where dancers negotiated better performance fees mid contract was possible because they initiated the first Equity Deputy system for dancers on a freelance Opera contract.
These are all Union successes and dancer successes. Because this is how a Union works. Equity is not just an office of union workers making decisions, its entire decision-making structure is made up of active Union members. A Union is a formal structure in which to unite workers within the same industry to work for improvements. It does provide many services included in membership -Accident cover, Public Liability Insurance, Tax and Welfare Help, Backstage insurance, contract advice, and more.. But its fundamental work is about workers organising to improve their working life.
Going back to Opera.. perhaps I should be clear as to why Equity have had more success achieving improved performance fees while the weekly fee stays so low.
Let me give some context to the situation:
It’s not broadly known that for a long time ENO de-recognised Equity contracts for dancers. They did this because they could. Because membership within dance was famously very low, and because they knew they could get away with it. Equity were able to re-established this, so they could at least be in a position to monitor and control the conditions and standards, and do everything they can to gradually increase rates.
That’s how we ended up here, in a place where Equity have so little leverage to improve rates in the absence of a better representative group of opera dance workers.
So this demonstrates very clearly that dancers’ membership and engagement with their union directly effects the power and leverage equity has. ie. no members, no power.
In my personal experience, you were lucky to find 1-2 members in an Opera dance cast 3-4 years ago.
Equity’s work for dancers in recent years has seen an increase of 79% in the new dance membership stats in 2014. Which is exactly why Equity now has more power to tackle the big issue of weekly fees in opera.
To people working in the industry, the change is clearly happening. It’s palpable and its measurable. That’s why membership levels are on the up.
This perception of it being us and them; dancers and Equity, is just wrong and misinformed. Equity can, by its definition, only work for its members.
So I don’t know why people think that starting an entirely new Union with no experience and starting from scratch would achieve anything other than to divide the industry and make us even less unified and more powerless.
It is still hard to find active dance Equity members who will engage with the structure to organise for improvements, but in the few months I’ve been in the position of dance representative I’ve developed a structure that has engaged over 200 dancers who want to work together to instigate change in our industry.
We are developing clearer structures for safe, valued employment of dancers, finding ways to support new and small-scale choreographers in their employment practise, addressing the lack of career progression in dance, and doing broad company visits and school workshops to engage and educate workers.
This is making actual change to the industry. It is overhauling dancers’ representation within Equity, and it is empowering Equity to work for dancers in ways they have never been able to before. And this is just 4 months in.
It’s perfectly clear that Opera rates are still ridiculous and medieval, but uninformed criticisms that quote false and inaccurate facts are actually just damaging our chances of changing this. They weaken our chances of being a unionised community, when we should clearly be sticking together to achieve the obvious common goal.
When you criticise equity’s powerlessness, you’re criticising the efforts of dancers who are actually trying to DO something to effect change. People who are not just talking about making change. If you want the change in the industry you claim you do, then surely you should support these people, not make uninformed critiques.
Please people, have some perspective.
When Equity does finally get a response from ROH to their current claim, Equity will be pushing every option they have to ensure ROH fulfil their responsibility of paying dancers a decent professional wage, and I hope we can all work TOGETHER to ensure this happens.
We want the same things, so let’s stick together ey?