FILE – This Nov. 24, 2007 file photo shows John Joseph Kelly, a stagehand for “Hairspray” at the Neil Simon Theatre, right, speaking with Mark Zimmerman, president of Actors’ Equity, as Kelly pickets outside the theater in New York. The Actors’ Equity Association, which has begun a yearlong celebration of its centennial, will get a Special Tony in recognition of their work negotiating wages, working conditions and benefits for stage performers and crew members. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg, file)
NEW YORK (AP) — One of the oldest-ever Tony Award winners will be honored Sunday — Actors’ Equity Association, which has begun a yearlong celebration of its centennial.
Equity, the 50,000-strong union of stage actors and stage managers, will get a Special Tony in recognition of their work negotiating wages, working conditions and benefits for theatrical performers.
“We’re very grateful to accept this and very excited about this, our anniversary of the 100th year of our founding,” said Nick Wyman, president of the union and a longtime member of Equity’s governing council.
The association is planning a year of events to mark its birthday, including a state-of-the-art traveling museum, a book about Equity’s history, a series of interactive discussions and an online multimedia personal history of live theater through the eyes of its members and supporters.
The Tony honor comes amid growing hostility to organized labor in a number of states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, which have moved to curb the bargaining rights of public employee unions and taken other measures that could weaken the clout of the labor movement.
“It’s a very alarming situation in the country today that people seem to have forgotten that unions are the good guys. We are the people who are protecting folks. We have somehow been painted as suddenly we are the fat cats and are working to destroy state budgets and middle-class possibilities when it’s just the opposite,” Wyman said. “Unions create the possibility for a middle-class life.”
Actors’ Equity Association was founded in May 1913 by 112 actors who banded together to fight against being exploited. The first president was the comedian Francis Wilson. Equity dues in 1916 were $5 a year. (They’re now $118, plus a small percentage of weekly gross earnings). By 1919, Equity became strong enough to organize a strike that crippled the theatrical scene and forced producers to finally negotiate.
“Unions protect the defenseless,” said Wyman, who was in “Catch Me If You Can” on Broadway last year. “Unions protect people that do not have the bargaining power or the ability to speak up for themselves in the face of the people on the other side of the table.”
Nationally, the number of unionized workers increased by about 50,000, to nearly 14.8 million members in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, unions’ share of the overall workforce fell slightly, from 11.9 percent to 11.8 percent. Union membership has declined steadily from its peak of about a third of all workers in the 1950s.
One proud member of Equity is Chita Rivera. “I feel very fortunate that I have a union behind me,” said Rivera, who will star in a revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” on Broadway this fall. “It just feels like you have a fairy godmother taking care of you.”
Wyman says Equity’s relationship with theater producers is now good after some rough times in the past. Shows yielded a record $1.14 billion in grosses this season on Broadway and total attendance reached 12.3 million, according to The Broadway League.
“We firmly believe that if the producers can make money, we will make money,” he said. “We are not in the business of trying to make life more difficult for them. We are in the business of trying to make a better business for everybody.”