The Actors' Equity Association collection is the largest of several collections at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives devoted to labor unionism in the performing arts. Taken together, these materials comprise the largest archival resource on this subject in the nation. This body of material provides a wealth of information on the history of the American commercial stage and on labor relations in many branches of the entertainment industry.
The Actors' Equity Association is the union of professional legitimate stage actors and stage managers. It was founded in New York City in May 1913, by 112 actors committed to fighting the arbitrary work rules and low wages then prevalent in the American theatre. In July 1919, the American Federation of Labor chartered the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (known as the 4A's). Equity, with a membership of 2,700 was its largest component. With the support of the musicians' and stagehands' unions, a major strike for recognition followed in August 1919. The strike occurred in eight cities and closed thirty-seven productions while preventing sixteen others from opening. This "revolt of the actors" swelled Equity's membership, instigated the formation of the Chorus Equity Association (CEA), and won a strong five-year contract between the union and the Producing Managers Association. From the beginning, Equity fought for the principal of arbitration of contractual disputes. From the beginning, Equity's headquarters have been in New York City; it also maintains branch offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Equity is governed by its delegate Council, elected by the membership.
In 1924, Equity achieved its goal of closed shop agreements and continued to make basic improvements in actors' contracts. Bonding provisions guaranteed salaries and transportation (1924); restrictions were placed on alien actors' activity in American theatres (1928); franchising of agents was established (1929); a minimum wage was guaranteed (1933); and minimum rehearsal expenses were paid (1935). Under the auspices of the 4A's, Equity-affiliated screen actors attempted to organize the burgeoning motion picture industry in the 1920s, but were frustrated in their efforts. In 1934, the 4A's jurisdiction over screen actors was handed over to the newly formed Screen Actors Guild.
From 1950 on, Equity began to organize the industrial shows field and subsequently regional, children's and dinner theatres. Chorus and Actors' Equity merged in 1955. A safe and sanitary code for backstage working conditions was established, and minimum rehearsal payments were established. The Pension and Welfare Plan was achieved only after a strike -- the twelve-day Broadway Blackout of 1960.
In the field of civil rights, the union initiated a boycott of segregated theatres in 1947, targeting the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Subsequently Equity's policies against segregation were extended to all theatres which discriminated against either performers or patrons with regard to race, color or creed. In recent years this principle has been extended to include discrimination on sexual preference or political persuasion or belief. In 1982, Equity adopted an affirmative action policy to increase employment opportunities for ethnic minorities and women.
Equity's uncompromising support of its members who were affected by blacklisting and other forms of official and informal persecution during the McCarthy era was almost unique in the entertainment industry and among labor unions in general. On September 28, 1951, after several members had been blacklisted and denied the opportunity to work in television, Equity's Council passed a resolution stating that blacklisting was "hostile to the fundamental purposes of this Association, and that Actors' Equity will act to the fullest of its capacities in defense of its members."
Equity's union work has always extended beyond contractual jurisdiction in actors' lives. Benevolent projects are at the heart of much of the union's functions. Actors' Equity Foundation has a theatre grants program, while a credit union provides credit and financial services to members. The Foundation also aids theatres suffering unforeseen catastrophes, contributes to the Actors' Fund of America, the charitable arm of the theatrical unions, and funds certain worthy theatrical projects. Equity also assists Save the Theatres, Inc., a not-for-profit body whose purpose is the preservation of important old theatre houses.
Sources: Alfred Harding, The Revolt of the Actors(New York: William Morrow and Co., 1929).