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Actors’ Equity Association Announces ‘Open Access,’ Expanding Eligibility for Union Membership

Stage Directions • NewsStage DirectionsTheater News • July 21, 2021

As the live arts industry begins to restart, and work increases as the pandemic diminishes, Actors’ Equity Association, the national union representing more than 51,000 professional stage managers and actors in live theatre, has announced a new Open Access membership policy, allowing any theatre worker who can demonstrate they have worked professionally as an actor or stage manager within Equity’s geographical jurisdiction to join the union.

Previously, eligibility for union membership had been limited to those working for an Equity employer – whether by direct contract offer or through the Equity Membership Candidate program – or to members of a sibling union. Now, Equity is broadening access to union jobs that offer living wages, benefits and important workplace safety provisions.

“The old system had a significant flaw: It made employers the gatekeepers of Equity membership, with almost no other pathways to joining,” said Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association. “The entertainment industry is disproportionately white, including and especially theatrical leadership. The union has inadvertently contributed to the systemic exclusion of BIPOC artists and others with marginalized identities by maintaining a system in which being hired to work those contracts was a prerequisite of membership. We hope that artists from all backgrounds will join us in building a union that uplifts the entire theatre community, especially those who have not felt included or welcome in the past.”

Additionally, the Open Access policy invites former members of Equity to rejoin the union without having to secure a new Equity contract, as required under previous policy. Former members and former applicants for membership who choose to join Equity under this policy may also apply previously paid initiation fees toward their current application.

Open Access is effective immediately for stage managers and actors who wish to join or rejoin Equity, regardless of country of origin or residence. Eligibility will extend for two years, with application and down payment of applicable fees required by May 1, 2023. Further details about the policy are available on Equity’s website.

Equity sent out emails to members on July 20, 2021 explaining Open Access. Here is a copy of that email:

For many years, eligibility to join Actors’ Equity Association has been limited to those who are working for an Equity employer – whether by direct contract offer or through the Equity Membership Candidate program – or to members of a sibling union.

Many Equity members have discussed the challenges created by this membership rule. Equity theatres, and indeed all entertainment industry employers, are disproportionately led by and populated with white people. Our membership rule has created a disproportionately high barrier to access for actors and stage managers of color. We have inadvertently contributed to the systemic exclusion of people of color and people of other marginalized identities from the benefits of union membership.

Members began serious conversations about changing this policy prior to the pandemic. A working group was formed under our Diversity & Inclusion Retrofit, where the details were hammered out. While this work was ongoing, elected delegates crafted a resolution in support of broadening access to membership, which passed enthusiastically at convention. Today, we’re ready to announce significant steps to change access to Equity membership, and we’re telling you first.

Equity’s new Open Access policy, passed overwhelmingly by council, aims to expand access to membership and remove barriers for individuals who may desire to join or rejoin our union. As we will announce tomorrow, we are opening union membership to any actor or stage manager who can demonstrate they have worked professionally (i.e., received compensation) as an actor or stage manager in the United States. This eligibility will extend for two years, with application and down payment of initiation fee and any applicable reinstatement fees required by May 1, 2023.

That’s not the only change that will come with Open Access. We’ve also removed restrictions on membership for international stage managers and actors. Additionally, former members and former applicants to Equity membership can have previous initiation fee payments credited towards the amount owed for joining or rejoining. Finally, effective immediately, all members will have more time – three years – to pay off their initiation fee.

It is our hope that these changes, and others that will continue to roll out in the coming months, will serve to remove barriers to membership that may primarily affect people of color and other systemically marginalized identities. We also look forward to providing union protections, including fair pay and safe workplaces, for a greater number of stage managers and actors.

Open Access is one of the pillars of our Diversity & Inclusion Retrofit, and there is still plenty of work to be done to transform Equity into an anti-racist organization. There is more to be done to ensure that all stage managers and actors – whether longstanding Equity members or newly eligible – can expect safe working environments free of bias and prejudice. But opening membership can’t wait until we’ve finished the Diversity & Inclusion Retrofit. Every stage manager and actor deserves access to the protections of union membership immediately.

During the transition from one model of union membership eligibility to the other, new concerns will arise that we can’t predict yet. And still: stage managers and actors deserve access to the protections of union membership immediately. Auditions may get more crowded, and still: stage managers and actors deserve access to the protections of union membership immediately. Equity has more work to do to become a truly anti-racist organization. Yes, and still: stage managers and actors deserve access to the protections of union membership immediately.

Tomorrow, Equity will email all active EMCs to notify them of the opportunity to join the union. We will also contact any former members we can reach, including international actors and stage managers. From there, we’ll need your help to spread the word. If you’d like to help Equity reach non-union actors and stage managers and share this opportunity to join the union, join the Open Access Action Team.

In solidarity,
Actors’ Equity Association

Background: Open Access is one of the pillars of the union’s Diversity & Inclusion Retrofit, Equity’s strategic framework for re-examining its own systems, structures and processes from the ground up to move Equity toward becoming an antiracist organization.

Further information from Actors’ Equity Association: www.actorsequity.org

 

 

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