Jim Higgins


Lets Play Trade Unions

(November 1975)

From the Spectator, 15 November 1975, p.629.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Equity is the trade union for actors. In the nature of the profession and character of the members it is rather different from most others. If its members are less prone to call one another brother or sister, it does not suggest a lack of fraternal feeling, merely that “darling” trips more readily off their tongues. I suppose that in a sense all trade union business is a specialised branch of show business. Bearing in mind this point it is a bit of a paradox that our thespians do not carry out their trade union role particularly well.

Equity was formed in 1931 as a result of a clarion call from such leading and famous actors as Godfrey Tearle, Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike. Largely based in the West End it had but a few hundred members and its rules were therefore designed to cater for a small, like-minded group of people who could meet easily. The main objective was to institute the closed shop and control the profession and improve the conditions of a grossly exploited profession. It was not thought necessary to have branches or a delegate conference. General meetings of Equity were, and still are, the levée en masse.

To call a general meeting in Equity it is only necessary to get the signatures of 40 members in good standing on a requisition. To set in motion a referendum of all the members you need just 100 signatures. Having catered for this ultra-democratic procedure, those who drafted the rules then decided to confer on the executive council the right to ignore any general meeting decision they thought against the interest of the union. Now that seems final enough, but it is not. A decision of the council unpopular with 40 members will result in a special general meeting. If the decision of that meeting offends 100 other members the question can be put to a membership referendum. That decision is binding on the council but not on any collection of 40 members who can start the process going again with another general meeting, and so on ad infinitum.

But, you may well ask, how does this come about? Surely it is the case that the rules served quite well for forty years without their use, or abuse, becoming a matter of public scandal? The answer is, of course, that unions like other human institutions change under the pressure of events and the society in which they operate. When the dreaded Industrial Relations Act was wending its useless course through Parliament, the trade union movement set its collective face firmly against the Bill’s provisions. Equity, along with the Seamen’s union, was caught in a hideous dilemma. If it did not register under the Act they would lose the closed shop agreements and probably the union as well. If they did register they would be out of the TUC, a connection that brought some benefit to the industrially weak Equity. Having dithered about de-registering and then registering the council finally came down for registration and were chucked out of the TUC.

None of this was accomplished without considerable strain. A vociferous and not inconsiderable minority searched the rule book and found that there were endless possibilities for foiling almost anything. A succession of special meetings and referenda were held arriving at contradictory conclusions. When the raison d’etre for the original conflict hall passed away with Mr Heath’s administration and Equity were back in the TUC, the groups who had fought the fight remained, armed with their new understanding of the rule book.

Largest of the groups was GROPE (Campaign for Restructuring and Progress for Equity) sustained by such figures as Miriam Karlin and Ian Milton, moderate but left inclined actors more concerned with issues than ideology. Much smaller but very noisy was the Workers’ Revolutionary Party following, whose strength in the union is almost certainly less than 100, which makes it difficult to get a referendum but easy to get a special meeting. Its notoriety rests more on the recruitment of Vanessa Redgrave than any on real attachment to Trotskyism in Equity. In addition there is Entertainment Unions’ Rank and File Group. This spurt of activity by politically motivated actors gave rise to the reaction led by Marius Goring, and more recently joined Nigel Davenport and Lord Olivier, united in detestation of politics in the union.

If you are still with me we can now deal with the events of last Sunday. On that day, at the Coliseum, no less than three consecutive special meetings were held. The first requisitioned by the governing council was to attempt to break out of the vicious circle of non-decision-making. The rule change proposed was that no referendum vote could be overturned except by another referendum. Despite the general support for this within Equity, the council fell foul of two difficulties. The first was their own bad tactics – they called the meeting for 10 a.m. and as Peter Plouviez, the General Secretary, plaintively explained: ‘Some of our supporters were still in bed when the vote was taken’. The other problem was that to change the rules a two-thirds majority is required. By just twenty-five votes the council failed to reach the magic two-thirds.

Having lost that vote the council then opposed the Davenport motion to insert in the rules that Equity is non-political and non-sectarian. While this may seem to be of little more than symbolic significance it might well handicap the union in its dealings with government and could even put in jeopardy the TUC affiliation. And so, although a simple majority of the 1,957 actors present voted for Mr Davenport’s motion it failed to get over the two-thirds hurdle.

The final special meeting debated the question of a branch and delegate conference structure: a seemingly reasonable reform that would certainly overcome the current difficulties. It also fell, largely one feels because of the notion of ill-attended branch meetings falling under the sway of the Redgraves and other like elements.

Thus, having laboured mightily, spent £6,000, and gathered a record number of actors together, they have not even given birth to a mouse, nothing at all is changed. It is a great pity because actors just as much as boilermakers need a trade union. To engage in these theatrical high jinks must be destructive of the essential purpose of Equity. It is surely not unreasonable that the TUC should be invited to lend their support and advice to rational changes in Equity structure. Unfortunately Equity have not asked for this service, and the TUC would not dream of offering it. One thing is clear, however: unless something is done very soon we will have another replay of the longest running flop in theatrical history.


Last updated on 16.6.2004