EQUITY is the UK trade union representing the interests of performers in any of the media, from actors, singers and dancers to cabaret artists, models and voice-over specialists. Directors, stage management, designers and writers are also elligible for membership. The union was founded in 1931, when a group of high-profile (and high-minded) actors declared that they would in future work only with other members of the new organisation. At last there was an organised defence against unscrupulous employers.
When I became a professional actor in 1961, I could not work without a provisional membership of Equity. Once I had completed 44 weeks of paid work, I was granted full membership, which allowed me then to work in West End Theatre, on television and in films. This apprenticeship system ensured that provisional members were serious about their careers and encouraged them to work in the regional theatres where traditionally actors and stage technicians learnt their trade. I regret that this "closed-shop," which gave performers some control over their industry, was declared illegal in 1981 by the Thatcher government intent on weakening the power of trade unions generally.
Today anyone who secures a job as an actor can take it wherever it is, and also (without contributing themselves) take advantage of the minimum wages structure established over the years by Equity on behalf of its members. I was proud to join the union, because it helped define my professionalism. My union card (no.40215) confirmed that I belonged in the business. I was grateful for the legal assurances negotiated by Equity in its standard contracts. I attended the lively AGM's each year in London and for one year was elected to the Council, though I haven't stood since. In 1964 I won my first acting prize, the Clarence Derwent Award, named after a president of American Actors' Equity and given by British Actors' Equity for the best supporting performance of the year in A Scent of Flowers.
These days I encourage my colleagues to join Equity. In exchange for an annual subscription (roughly 1% of the previous year's income), members have the protection of the union's lawyers and the standard contracts plus insurance and pension schemes.
Membership means more than these obvious advantages. It reflects the nature of our work which is a collective enterprise, where we all depend on each other. It is of course in only the employers' interests that we employees should be without the protection of the union's experience and strength.
I support Equity's current campaign to establish for actors in West End Theatre, a minimum wage of £550 per week.
— Ian McKellen
1979: Acting Together
In the press, whether a short newsy paragraph or a full column of Levin vituperation, my union is dismissed as a foolish little set-up. Read More
1979: The Most Unkindest Cut of All
The march through London's West End on 24 July (1979) was a high-spirited and invigorating experience. At least 4,000 members of British Actors' Equity were on parade, representing every theatre in the country. Read More