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Adapting to the gig economy

Equity has over 47000 members working in the original gig economy. A gig can be a few hours, a few days, for 12 weeks or sometimes longer. Recruiting, organising and servicing in this environment requires Equity Organisers to spend a large amount of time out in the field visiting workplaces across the country and developing a traditional workplace rep structure is challenging, if not impossible.

Equity members in most cases elect a ‘Deputy’ (Dep) as part of their first cast meeting in the live performance sector – but when you work in a fast moving industry where short term contracts are the norm, and the work can be all consuming, there’s no time or space for facilities, rep training or union meetings beyond what’s necessary to identify and resolve issues.

Despite these difficulties, Deps make an enormous contribution to the union – they are an important line of communication between officials and members, vital when, for instance, a production is on tour or when a sudden health and safety issue occurs. We provide Deps with a huge range of information – literature on everything from the Equity pension scheme through to our Safe Spaces campaign - and they can always contact Organisers directly when any problem arises.

Deps, like most union members, really are our best resource for recruiting non-members but we don’t always have the capacity to enable them to contribute to longer term organising, bargaining or campaigning strategies for the union. That said, many of our Deps have progressed and brought their experience to Working Parties that negotiate our national and sectoral agreements or have gone on to be elected to one of the union’s industrial committees, which have delegated authority to approve our industrial claims and bargaining outcomes.

In the West End and in opera and ballet, where productions can have more substantial runs, it’s possible to have Deps elected for longer periods. In TV this model has also been used on continuing dramas and on soaps and Deps and members are brought together through workplace forums.

We are hoping to increase representation in these and other structures for backstage roles (such as stage management) in the future. We also want to consider how to network members who have served for shorter periods as a Dep across commercial, subsidised and independent theatre so that we make better use of their experience and involve them in consultations to inform our bargaining and campaigning agenda.

In more precarious, emerging and itinerant areas of the industry we are creating new and flexible structures to give a voice to members. We have networks for models, puppeteers (a growing and highly skilled area of work in theatre, film and television), commercial dancers, circus and burlesque performers, immersive theatre workers and comedians. These structures are open and inclusive – they do not require us to run elections for entry; their agendas, activities and events can be more flexible and responsive to what’s happening on the ground. These networks can then feed into our broader and elected Stage, Screen and New Media, Audio and Variety, Circus and Entertainment Committees to influence Equity’s industrial agreements and policies.

Alongside the industrial structures and networks of the union, Equity has geographically based general and variety branches and one online branch covering the whole of the UK. These spaces are open to all and are the place where very many members find comradeship and work together to initiate campaigns or ideas for the union to take forward. In a relatively small union we rely on our branches to be our presence at anti austerity, May Day and Pride marches and to signpost members who don’t know who to call for advice on their contract.

Equity’s membership has increased by 10,000 in the last 7 years and as we continue to grow we need to ensure that membership of the union means more than a card in the wallet, a number to call or a set of (albeit very valuable) services. We have a responsibility to come up with new and creative ways of giving members an avenue to tell us what they want and how they want to be involved in getting it because ultimately, a strong union’s relevance and power comes from engagement, empowerment and a willingness to adapt.