Equity New Zealand was started by Australian Equity around 1945. So 2020 is our 75th
The main reason was so that Australian actors touring with J C Williamson Theatres in New Zealand would have some basic employment rights and representation in New Zealand. But there was a legal component as well. Workers taking organised action against an employer, without it being the action of a registered union, would expose themselves to damages claims and severe penalties. What delights me most about this story is that, as an act of fraternal support, the Australian Seamen’s Union smuggled two Australian union organisers over to New Zealand to set the union up.
When the long trail of Australian touring company visits dried up Equity New Zealand went into recession.
In 1966 I worked as a radio actor in the Christchurch studios of Radio NZ. A group of us had regular radio work and we cranked the union into life again. I still have my 1966 membership card showing an annual subscription of two pounds and seven shillings.
The primary issue leading to the revival was the need for a body to negotiate terms with Radio NZ – the main employer of actors. At the same time professional theatre was beginning and in Christchurch there was a hair-brained scheme to import a set of weekly-rep actors from the UK and set up a permanent professional company. The professional theatre used the same theatre building as the amateur theatre group, Christchurch Repertory Society, which for the next few months played to packed houses whilst the new professional company did a freeze. (Never under-estimate audience loyalty).
The company collapsed and eight UK professional actors were caught with insufficient funds to return home. Fred Betts, one of the Equity revival group who needs to be recognised as one of our founding fathers, took on the role of NZ Equity’s first organiser and did a marvellous job of organising assistance for them from the local community and the Arts Council. Some returned home and some remained to add considerable skill and experience to other professional ventures that were setting up. The collapse wasn’t a matter of lack of actor talent.
The union quickly spread to the new Downstage Theatre in Wellington and then to NZ’s first resident theatre company, the Mercury Theatre in Auckland. Union agreements had to be negotiated, minimum wages and conditions set. The formality of Mercury’s permanent company meant that formality of employment conditions had to follow.
At this time I was the Equity delegate at the Mercury Theatre. The union had an Auckland Branch office shared with the Musicians Union. (The Equity Magazine celebrating the 75 years, notes the setting up of Equity’s first New Zealand office in 2006 – actually it was 33 years earlier than that).
The first paid official was the Auckland Branch Secretary, a role he undertook in association with the Musicians Union. That meant that we had to have an office. (In retrospect I can’t for the life of me think why). What is more I think we never paid the rent, and we had no system for monitoring his activities and his financial management. Then, one day, he was not to be found. His wife let us know that he had gone to Australia in a hurry. The union’s small bank account was emptied. All that was left was his junky old car which was left outside my house, and three weeks later was set on fire. Our Auckland committee just learnt a thing or two about management.
The first National Secretary had the skills for the job. Graeme Whimp was a respected adviser, researcher, even guru, of the Auckland Union scene, and worked closely with the Northern Drivers Union, the Drivers Federation, and a whole collection of small unions. He was exactly what Equity needed.
At that time I was in the process of leaving the Mercury Theatre and I took on the role of Auckland Secretary of Equity with the challenge of finding the funds that we needed by recruiting members. I shifted the office to free space offered by the Drivers Union, where our new National Secretary worked. Next door to my office was the Stationery Engine Drivers Union and over the corridor, the Auckland Meat Workers Union. That was an environment that sustained me and the branch in every way.
Then came television and then came our first big battle.
The view of the entertainment and drama departments of Television NZ was that there would be no need to pay performers because the exposure that TV would provide for them would mean that they got well-paid gigs in other performance venues. We were meant to be grateful for the publicity.
It was a huge scrap – culminating in the entire cast of a TV song and dance show walking off the job five minutes before their live performance. Professional actors couldn’t believe that dancers had had the strength of purpose to walk, but there was huge support from actors, cabaret performers, dancers and singers. It was the unifying call that held us together for the next few years. The decision of that group of dance performers has to be recognised as heroic and as having a lasting impact which, while largely forgotten, is still the genesis of much that we have in performers rights and the value of their work today.
Equity began negotiating agreements with Radio NZ and Television NZ, for basic terms and conditions for actors and other performers. Those agreements formed the basis of the individual contracts that were negotiated between Radio or Television and the actor for the subsequent ten years. Then came the burgeoning film industry. Apart from the exciting first movies of Roger Donaldson and Ian Mune, which almost entirely used New Zealand actors, the next set of producers wanted casts to come from overseas. There was also a developing queue of overseas companies who wanted to film in New Zealand and bring their whole team with them.
The Wellington Branch had a primary focus on the Performing Arts, with the NZ Ballet, Downstage Theatre and the Radio NZ Drama Studio providing the membership core. Then the Avalon TV studios began the long running soap – Close to Home, and the Wellington Branch was viable, influential and effective. Particularly with regard to Close to Home the core cast were Equity’s strength. Enough to also sustain the prolonged struggle to protect the deserted cast of the touring show Ipi Tombi (mentioned elsewhere). NZ Equity Life Member Ken Blackburn became a voice of the union in Close to Home, and anywhere else where actors’ rights were being trampled on.
I have a newspaper cutting on my wall (found under the carpet of our house) of an incident I had entirely forgotten about. Hollywood Actress Bo Derek (who I had also mercifully forgotten about) proposed coming to New Zealand to film an Adam and Eve movie with Bo as Eve. No New Zealanders were to be used. We regarded this as the worst thing that could happen to our young industry. Members’ meetings in the main centres were crowded and actors were really worried about the precedent that would be created if New Zealand was to be the place for Hollywood to make Hollywood movies. (Still our No 1 issue).
We contacted the American Screen Actors’ Guild and gained their support and advised Bo that coming to New Zealand would endanger her work opportunities in the US. The show was cancelled. (Actually the tipping point was the fact that she wanted to bring a snake with her and we set the Ministry of Agriculture onto her. But we never publicised that). It was one action in a long battle to build up New Zealand talent and to build the worth of our performers.
The next action arose out of TVNZ’s practice of bringing third rate show-hosts out from the UK to host game shows. That was our second TV strike. This time with the assistance of the TVNZ crews who were Public Service union members. They pulled the plug on the lights.
This story has to include the amazing event of the Russian Circus which came to Auckland in the early 80s. The entrepreneur who brought the Russian Circus into Auckland, refused to stump up with union fees for 300 performers, and crew. With some justification he believed that it wasn’t his role to pay union fees for his employees. We responded that the fees needed to be paid; that the performers because of their employment terms didn’t have the ready cash, and that we (one of the most under-financed unions in the country) have a long history of having to support performers in strife when their overseas employer leaves them in the lurch.
Graeme contacted the Russian Circus Union, and we had their total support. The entrepreneur didn’t budge but was shaken by the Russian response. So Graeme approached the Auckland Storemen and Packers Union, whose members had been hired to undertake tasks like putting up the big top. A quick meeting of the workforce on the job and the big top team downed tools until “our brother / sister union” cleared it. The support of the Russian Union (the performers’ home union) was crucial to that decision.
The money was paid, the big top went up. Equity was in a position to protect the interests of the circus performers. There was no call on our assistance – but one injury from accident in the circus grounds would have consumed our funds.
There were examples at the time of touring groups being in strife in New Zealand, often because the world tour finished here, at the bottom of the world. One such was the African dance company, Ipi Tombi,(who were actually from Los Angeles). The tour finished and they were left behind by the management with no return fares paid and no cash to pay them. Equity’s unpaid Wellington President, John McDavitt, spent nearly two months gathering support for them, ensuring that they were safely housed and fed, and repatriated back to L A. We never got a cent from the show promoters.
This story has to mention the brief strike of the cast of a New Zealand touring production of Evita. In National Secretary Graeme Whimp’s words: “I remember to this day the combination of terror and determination on the faces of the cast on opening night as they refused to go on until the show manager signed the Equity agreement for the show. In its own way it was one of the most courageous and even noble things I have seen and a remarkable example of adherence to the idea of solidarity”.
Then there was the visiting Sydney big theatre spectacular show that didn’t intend to pay anyone because the event was really a money laundering scam. “Big time spectacular show goes to NZ and loses a fortune!” It might have worked, but the tour manager took it too seriously and refused to pay out even accommodation costs to the performers. Enter Equity stage left. Within a day there was an agent from the Sydney company in the Auckland Equity office with a roll of banknotes. If you’re running a scam it’s really dumb to get confused between the scam and the world of real.
The tour manager was sent to manage a Wellington strip joint with the job description of repaying lost finance. His body was found at the joint two years later.
The legal environment we worked in was very different from today. As a registered union we actually had a statutory role in establishing minimum rates and maximum hours of work and a whole lot of other conditions which as an award applied to all people working in the industry whether union members or not. That had me, around 1980, organising a strike of red light strippers who hadn’t been paid holiday pay. Meetings were held back stage with the members in various stages of dress and undress, (them, not me) and a decision was made to go on strike until they were paid $3,000 each back pay and holiday pay. That night they were on the footpath outside the strip club with banners and me with a loud hailer. The club was guarded by two of the toughest, hardest bouncers I’ve ever seen. They looked as though they were made of steel. Just as they were approaching me with nothing pleasant in mind a taxi pulled up and three members of the Drivers’ Union Executive stepped out. Nothing was said – I had the street cred! We had won. The bouncers backed away and the club owner came out with a $15,000 cheque.
This story is a history of some aspects of the long struggle to defend the status of performers’ rights. I’m proud that N Z actors, and other performers, whatever their art, belong to a worldwide movement. Because of that we can become increasingly powerful. Without that we will become increasingly vulnerable. This story is about powerful.
This is also a story about Equity NZ being part of a New Zealand and international union movement, and having been supported by, and contributed to that movement.