What We Learned When the 12 Largest Entertainment Unions Gathered to Discuss the COVID-19 Pandemic | Playbill

COVID-19 Relief What We Learned When the 12 Largest Entertainment Unions Gathered to Discuss the COVID-19 Pandemic Representatives from Actors’ Equity, SAG-AFTRA, SDC, IATSE, and more shared progress and new developments regarding employment during the pandemic.
The theatre district Playbill Staff

On May 6, leaders from 12 major unions and organizations in the entertainment industry gathered for a call to discuss their current efforts to support the hundreds of thousands of members who have been affected by the shutdowns associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

Led by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations and their the Department for Professional Employees, the conversation featured the national leaders of: Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television (SAG-AFTRA), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), American Federation of Musicians (AFM), Actors’ Equity Association (Equity), American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Writers Guild of America East (WGAE), Office of Professional Employees International Union Local 174, Directors Guild of America (DGA), and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC).

According to the Department of Labor, most of the 4 million creative professionals in the United States are out of work and, as AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, pointed out, when the work returns “they’re not going to be returning to ‘normal,’ it will be a very different approach to the industry.”

“We have to continue thinking of the arts not only in a cultural context but in an economic context,” said Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle. “Arts and entertainment is responsible for more than 4 million jobs, $877 billion in value, and 4.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.”

In the not-for-profit theatre sector alone, the average attendee “spends an additional $31 per person per show on ancillary services surrounding the theaters,” said Shindle. Nationally, that spending supports 2.3 million jobs, accounts for $46.6 billion in household income, and generates $15.7 billion in total government revenue.

As we continue to track the implications of the arts shutdowns nationwide, the union leaders continue to prioritize the safety, physical, and financial well-being of their members.

With approximately 160,000 members, SAG-AFTRA has also commissioned a Blue Ribbon Commission on Safety to review reports and recommended steps for resuming work. The DGA has enacted a similar approach, appointing a national board committee led by Steven Soderberg. The committee will consulting with medical experts, to determine “what a safe return to production can and should look like,” said DGA President Thomas Schlamme.

International President of IATSE Matthew D. Loeb reported that all of the 360 local unions throughout the U.S. and Canada are negotiating with the motion picture industry to create one uniform set of terms and conditions to return to production.

As previously announced, Equity has recruited former OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels to consult with the union to establish a plan for a safe return to work. Shindle says that Michaels is currently familiarizing himself with the ins and outs of the industry and the unique requirements of the theatrical workplace. “We are moving as quickly as possible to determine when it’s going to be safe, for example, for one actor to hand a prop to another actor. There are some accommodations that may need to be made creatively,” said Shindle. When asked if the availability of an effective vaccine would need to be in place in order to re-open, Shindle declined to confirm that this would be necessary, feeling it would be speculative. Instead, Equity is focused on the partnership within this coalition of unions to find safe solutions to get back to work as quickly as possible, saying that directors and choreographers may have to get creative.

Safety is the utmost priority. “We have to know that it’s safe onstage and backstage in addition to in the audience, before we are comfortable that it is safe to going back to work.”

Until it is safe to return to work—be it in an orchestra pit, onstage, backstage, on set, in a studio—the coalition is dedicated to preserving the security of its members during this spike in unemployment. “We went from record [low] unemployment last season to 100 percent unemployment,” Shindle said.

Schlamme reported that the DGA had helped fast-track residual payments to its members and ensured payment for current work.

Gabrielle Carteris, President of SAG-AFTRA, emphasized her union’s push to expand and extend the critical components of the CARES Act as they urge “Congress to take action closing the mixed income loophole as well as protecting defined benefit pension plans,” she said.

The push for increased assistance from Congress was seconded by every leader on the call in a show of industry unity.

Loeb highlighted IATSE’s priority to ensure inclusion of their approximately 150,000 members in any governmental relief program via their local unions that “need to be included in the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] for small businesses, because that is what they are.” He continued, “We need to extend unemployment insurance as well as COBRA coverage … and pension plan relief is also a priority.”

Shindle added that while Equity continues to work with state and local government as well as employers to ensure their members have healthcare, they have also been pushing for Congress to do more—namely in the form of a 100 percent COBRA subsidy. She called on Congress for arts funding, as well, so that members have theatres to go back to.

Employment Now
As each union works individually and collaboratively to determine when and how artists can return to work—and how to care for unemployed artists in the interim—the unions also recognize the creativity of artists to create new employment opportunities right now. While previous contracts and agreements, especially in theatre, may not have been designed with streaming media and other outlets in mind, unions are working quickly to expand parameters and draft new agreements.

“We’ve been working in as creative a fashion as possible,” Shindle assured. Virtual ticketing models for in-house performances, live stream ticketing, and more are all being considered as the union develops new models.

For directors and choreographers, SDC Executive Director Laura Penn pointed out that “our agreements have embedded in them streaming and archive captures granting concession for theatres to share past productions.”

But in addition to broadcasting previous work, SDC has been able to support their members with current work. “There is quite a bit of development work beginning to happen as we move into this next phase of whatever this is we’re living through,” said Penn. Employers are honoring previous collective bargaining agreements to continue work on projects that were in media res when the shutdown occurred; and SDC has created a new remote development contract that they expect will grow in demand.

“Many of our members have time to work in the new play development process in a way that they maybe haven’t, and I think producers are recognizing the need for having a pipeline of projects that are ready to go,” Penn added. What’s more, readings and development processes have been taking place in virtual rehearsal rooms, some with writers and actors. The corresponding unions have been supportive of this.

Directors and choreographers have also been in discussion with SDC about fallback plans for productions slated to begin rehearsal in the fall with opening dates late in 2020. “If a production can’t be presented, would they be able to share rehearsal?” Penn posited. SDC aims to be as flexible as possible to encourage work.

SAG-AFTRA has been instrumental in the process of streaming and broadcasting theatrical works, granting generous waivers in a show of partnership. The same can be said for AGMA as it grants waivers to allow for broadcast of material. Not to mention “classes and all those things that are beyond the scope of our current collective bargaining agreements that have been granted as waivers,” said AGMA President Raymond Menard.

Lowell Peterson of WGAE says the writers of his union are hard at work on scripts for “once that green light is lit,” with episodes and features in the pipeline.

“There’s an enormous demand in the public for more series, more features, certainly more theatre projects,” he said. “There is demand, there is appetite, there is material.”

“Going forward I would say that I am optimistic,” said Shindle. “I think it’s going to get harder before it gets easier but it’s my observation and the observation of Actors’ Equity that theatremakers make theatre, so while we are eager for them to innovate we have the absolutely highest priority placed on the safety onstage and backstage for the arts professionals who work in our industry.”

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