Actors on ‘Waitress’ tour seek trade union membership

A group of actors and stage directors employed by a non-union music production company “The Waitress” is seeking union representation, spurred by the increasing focus on working conditions in theatrical productions and the recent successes of the labor movement in other industries.

The Actors Equity Association, a labor union representing 51,000 performers and stage managers, said it had collected signatures from more than 30 percent of workers needed to run for election, and on Tuesday it filed an electoral petition with the National Labor Relations Board. that conduct such elections.

The number of people affected is few — there are 22 actors and stage directors employed on the tour, according to Equity — but the move is significant because it is the first time Equity has attempted a non-union tour since a failed effort two decades ago to unite a touring production called “The Music Man.” . (The union also sought a boycott of this production.)

Union officials said the “Waitress” tour was an obvious spot for a regulatory campaign due to an unusually clear comparison: There are currently two music tour companies, one represented by the union and one not. Equity said workers on the non-union round are paid about a third of what workers in the unionized company are paid, and they have less safety protections. (The minimum salary for a union representative is $2,244 per week.)

“We thought this was not right and unfair, so we contacted them to see if they were interested in representing us,” said Stephanie Fry, the union’s director of organization and mobilization. Frey said the productions were so similar that some non-union artists were asked to teach performers in union production, and some moved from non-union production to unionized production. “It’s a clear group of people who are being exploited,” she said.

Jennifer Ardison-West, COO of NETworks Presentations, the company that produces the non-union “Waitress” tour, declined to provide immediate reaction, saying, “Until we see the actual recording, it’s too early for me to comment.”

Tours are an important and lucrative part of Broadway’s economy. During the 2018-19 theater season — the last full season before the pandemic — syndicated touring shows totaled $1.6 billion and were attended by 18.5 million people, according to the Broadway League. Similar statistics are not readily available for non-union tours, but Frey said, “The world of non-union tours has grown over the past 15 years.”

Equity is in the process of hiring additional regulators as it seeks to expand its efforts, according to a union spokesperson, David Levy, who noted recent successful efforts to organize some employees at REI, Starbucks and Amazon. The National Labor Relations Board said last week that the number of union election petitions is growing exponentially.

Frey said that the prolonged pandemic shutdown of theaters has also contributed to a new interest in regulation in the theater industry. “The workers feel more empowered and want to fight for what they deserve in a different way,” she said.

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