Random thoughts on the organizations which protect us
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I'd like to start by offering a personal anecdote. (Yeah, yeah, I know - but what's the point of being nearly 57 if you haven't had any experience worth sharing?)
When I was a nipper, and after I had embarked on a career as a playwright, a play of mine was a huge success. I was approached by a well-known Quebec film-maker to adapt the work. He also said he was going to teach me how to do things, along the way. He did.
I learned how to write a proposal, a treatment, a draft. I did all of them, over and over again. I adapted and re-adapted and changed and then fundamentally changed my play from the tragedy it had been on stage to - yup - a comedy that resembled not at all what had attracted the film-maker in the first place. And then it all stopped because a well-known Quebec actor (now a Hollywood star) reportedly wouldn't sign on.
I later learned that the film-maker should have been paying me (and handsomely) for the work I had done. That it was all outlined in collective agreements somewhere.
"Look! Joe Starman accepted half of what we are forced to offer him for our industrial!"
I learned this when I became a local and then national board member at ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists). I subsequently used what I learned in another case. This time it was a radio producer who had me write and rewrite draft after draft of a play before finally deciding it was ready for radio. Again - under the collective agreement - I should have been paid for the development of the piece. I went to one of the many kings and queens of on-the-ground negotiators who worked for ACTRA who went marching into the drama producer's boss's office and negotiated a settlement. (In passing: It was a good thing I got the dough as radio drama offices across the country, at CBC, were closing.)
On the ACTRA board we made decisions, sometimes, that were not popular. I'll offer one: several recognizable actors were doing movies called "industrials" (a company's in-house film used to vaunt products or train employees). The name or recognizable actors always got these gigs because they were indeed known to anyone who watched TV. The problem? A lot of the actors struck deals under the table because these films were easy to knock out and the money was quick.
I think you'll agree that any deal struck under the table is a deal that is dangerous to the collective. What happens is the producers who try to stay clean eventually point over there and say, "Look! Joe Starman accepted half of what we are forced to offer him for our industrial!" Soon enough, with this kind of erosion, even the big production houses making movies and TV start straying from collective agreements.
So what is to be done? In most cases the actors themselves stop fucking about when they are warned. But the bigger or more recognizable the actor, the more they ignored the organization created to protect them. In some cases ACTRA's actions had to be harder than warning. One important detail: it was part of ACTRA's ethos never to publicly name either actor or employer in these cases.
I have a friend, in Montreal, who was required to join - and glad to - a professional organization to work. The organization is in place to assure people that each pro has the education necessary to do the job and get paid for that education. The problem is, it's hard economic times and many, many people now work under the table. The organization is falling to pieces. When they try to enforce regulations with major employers, they are laughed out of the room. When good times return, there will be no one to defend the members and the sub-par payments made during the hard times will remain in place. End of. It is the way of the world whenever money is in play. Call it capitalism.
I do not know the details behind the recent cancellation of Helen Lawrence at Festival Trans-Amerique. I know it involved the Canadian Actors' Equity Association (CAEA).
What I do know is that a lot of people who lost their shit over this seemed and pummeled CAEA on Twitter and Facebook have no idea how an arts organization cum union works, did not understand that the action by Equity was clearly one of last-resort that that there are aspects of the shut-down that must remain confidential. (Highly speculative example: that someone involved in the production felt exploited, complained and was heeded by the people protecting him or her.)
Full disclosure: Arden Ryshpan, the Executive Director at CAEA, is a friend and we fought in the ACTRA trenches together. I know of no one more dedicated to the cause of workers' rights - artists' rights - than Arden and am horrified by the mud that has been slung her and CAEA's way these last weeks.
All this to say that now - more than ever - we need organizations like ACTRA and CAEA. As rampant conservatism sees cut-backs to the arts, as corporations become people (and the most vicious kinds of people), as workers are pitted against each other, we need to rally behind such organizations.
I've heard the legitimate complaints about ACTRA and AE. Are they perfect? Of course not. But the one way to improve them - in this new age of YouTube, alternative theatre festivals and faster-than-light change - is to join and be active.
People who work for such organizations do not do it for the glory (as Arden must clearly have learned during this latest controversy).
They do it because they believe.