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Equity in buoyant mood

PAUL W FLEMING reports on the progress made by the 93-year-old union

THERE are few things I’m more proud of than being general secretary of Equity, but one of them may be being a Brummie.

The Workshop of the World may well be renowned as the birthplace of industry, a municipal model, and modern suffrage but the City of A Thousand Trades and the region of which it is the capital are also crucibles of creativity.

Equity’s Midlands Region includes the birthplaces of Byron, Bhangra, and Black Sabbath. There’s no Shakespeare, no Julie Walters and no Benjamin Zephaniah without the Heart of England.

And as Equity’s conference arrives in Birmingham this year, the town hall which hosts us embodies the link between art, industry, and progress. Built not for art’s sake, despite hosting everyone from Dickens to Dvorak, built not just for politics, despite its platforms being used for everything from solidarity rallies with sacked Red Robbo to appeals from the Pankhursts.

The Town Hall was built as a home for the Birmingham Triennial Festival, the longest running classical music concert in the world, which raised funds to create one of the world’s first free hospitals.

This progressivism is seen in the motto of the City Council, and the theme for Equity’s conference this year: Forward. At a time when we’re seeing the rolling back of workers’ rights from an ailing Tory government, having this as the movement’s rallying cry is essential.

When Equity is protesting at cuts from the fire sale of municipal assets after Birmingham’s effective bankruptcy – we need to keep that in mind too.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this tough backdrop would lend itself to a downbeat conference, but Equity’s last year has been a remarkable push forward.

Our membership ended 2023 higher than any year in our 93-year history. Most of our 50,000 members are under 40, and our density stands at 70 per cent in TV and film, and over 80 per cent in theatre.

With over 95 per cent of stage and screen work made on a union agreement, mostly sectorally bargained, we’re a union with an incredible story to tell.

This conference will be celebrating some big wins too: our 17 per cent pay claim for West End theatre last year reached a compromise of 16.7 per cent, and across agreements for stage directors and designers we’ve won over 20 per cent.

The Independent Theatre Agreement, used as the basis for publicly funded work across all four Arts Councils, has seen pay rise in real terms by 15 per cent over the last 20 years, when average wages have fallen by 15 per cent in the same period.

2023 was dominated by the successful strike action by one of our sister unions in the US, SAG-AFTRA.

Our president and I were there in July last year, inputting into their negotiations, and ensuring our agreements remained strong against producers attempting to duck their action.

We succeeded on that front, and it’s a matter of pride that the SAG-AFTRA claims on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and casting arose out of work Equity had undertaken in this country.

In the year to come we have our own TV and film negotiations, and like SAG-AFTRA we’re strike ready to win better pay, modern royalty provisions, new rules on casting, AI protections, and a better bulwark against the “buying out” of our members’ terms.

The bosses know our agreements are as strong as those in the US, and we’re pushing forward to keep that as true this decade as the last.

Equity’s international work is an essential part of what we do: the SAG-AFTRA dispute proved that; and our Birmingham conference has a large international contingent arriving. Sister unions from Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Mexico, South Africa, and the US and elsewhere will be here to celebrate with us, and share their organising victories on our fringe and at an international reception.

Equity, so long scarred by our failed TV Commercials strike over 20 years ago, is doing all we can to support our Canadian cousins in winning their dispute today, a dispute with not just the same tactics but the same personnel.

The big difference is that ACTRA in Canada are winning after almost three years of incredible, imaginative direct action.

Equity’s international work started in supporting Republican soldiers in Spain in the 1930s, and has always involved protecting freedom of expression as well as the freedom to bargain.

Our Council is set to approve a further grant to our Ukrainian sister union to support them against both Russian onslaught and the anti-trades union policies of the Ukrainian government.

Our Ukrainian comrades can’t attend the conference, but our Palestinian comrades have bravely made the trip.

We will be raising our voices against apartheid in the West Bank, genocide in Gaza, and the release of political prisoners, whether those captured by Hamas at a festival – a cultural workplace – or held in Israeli gaols without charge, like our friend Mustafa Sheta of The Freedom Theatre held since December last year without trial or charge.

I tell anyone who will listen how Birmingham is the centre of the world, built by fire, steel, chocolate, and culture. The chance to bring the world to Birmingham, hosted by of one of the strongest unions in the movement, is an incredible privilege. What’s to say, except: Forward.

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