By Caroline Propersi-Grossman
In August 1919, following months of stalled negotiations, the New York City section of Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) called a strike against The Producing Managers Association, a trade group composed of theater owners and producers including the Shubert, Ziegfield, and Belasco theater owners. Equity’s demands were modest. The strike called for a standardized eight-show work week with additional compensation for extra matinee performances and higher wages for chorus performers. The Producing Managers Association responded by refusing to recognize Equity, filing injunctions against individual actors, and occasionally attempting to open negotiations with the actors’ union on a theater-by-theater basis. As the strike continued and injunctions were denied members of the Producing Managers Association grew more desperate to end the strike. The Shubert theaters hired non-union actors and replaced striking actors with their understudies in a piecemeal attempt to break the strike and eliminate worker solidarity. Members of the Producing Managers Association also publicly decried the strike claiming that the union was holding the theater hostage.
Concern about the exercise of the actors talents, not their skills belies an important distinction between art and labor. The use of talent in place of skill states that the Producing Managers Association thought of acting as an innate ability, not a skill honed through careful study and worthy of fair compensation.
Faced with the financial burden of an ongoing strike and refunding weeks of ticket sales, the Producing Managers Association moved to lock Equity actors out of their New York City theaters. At this point in the conflict, Equity’s theatrical allies, the IATSE and AFM acted rapidly to expand the strike to include Producing Managers Association theaters in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Boston. This secondary boycott included stagehands, musicians, and other theatrical workers who walked off their jobs in a display of union solidarity. Massive theater closures across the United States combined with pressure from the New York State Department of Labor and well-known actors brought Equity to victory.
Against staggering opposition and a dedicated misinformation campaign, the alliance between Equity, IATSE, and AFM resulted in a victory for unionized actors in the United States. The demand for a standardized eight-show week and fair compensation for members of the chorus was met and Equity was recognized as a legitimate bargaining unit for performers.
One hundred years later, Equity has called a strike against another powerful unit of theatrical producers. Strikes and work stoppages are rare on Broadway. New York City’s performing arts unions are powerful, good at negotiating for their members, and are unwilling to disrupt the industry unless absolutely necessary. Equity has called its current strike against the Broadway League, a trade group representing theatrical producers after two years of negotiations on the union’s laboratory development agreement with the League.
Before appearing on stage, material from musicals is tested out in developmental settings like readings or small-scale stagings. Development work employs actors and stage managers who perform and revise material before it goes to the mainstage. According to Actors’ Equity, 51% of material produced through a laboratory agreement has gone on to further production, including hit shows like Frozen and Mean Girls, which have already signed onto profit sharing agreements with the union. Hot-ticket shows like To Kill a Mockingbird and Hello, Dolly! have also benefited from laboratory development. It is reasonable to believe that the laboratory work performed by actors and stage managers is valuable rehearsal and revision time that shapes the work. However, the Broadway League does not see it this way and in an era of record-breaking ticket sales has refused to compensate professionals for their labor or expertise. Although many Broadway shows operate at a loss, investing in producing a show on Broadway is one of the most high-reward financial activities that one can engage in and the union’s new laboratory agreements only require profit sharing once a show has fully recouped its production costs.
As the current laboratory agreements stand, actors earn approximately $1,000 a week for their work, hardly a living wage in New York City. Nor is it commensurate with the creative contributions that actors and stage managers make during developmental productions. Some of these contributions are enormous. Actors or stage managers may create new characters, write dialogue, or contribute original choreography that enrich the show. Actors’ Equity Association has encouraged its members to declare that they are people who deserve a living wage by using the social media hashtag #NotALabRat.
During the summer of 1919, workers in industries and occupations across the United States joined unions, went on strike, and banded together to create better working conditions. In 2019, union membership is growing and workers are striking for better pay and safer working conditions. It is important to place Equity’s #NotALabRat strike and campaign for a living wage in the context of other 21st century labor movements. Like the #NotALabRat campaign, recent wellsprings of workers’ organizing in arts, service, and educational industries have focused on obtaining a living wage for workers because one job should be enough. Workers’ struggles across industries, especially ones that are considered vocational or talent-based like acting and teaching, are fundamentally changing the ways that Americans think of work, talent, and skill. Labor history is being made on stage and in the streets.
Caroline Propersi-Grossman is a PhD candidate and union officer. She studies labor in New York City’s performing arts industry. Follow her at @carolinecprogro.
 Actors’ Equity Association resolution printed in “Leading Payers Go Out, Closing Big Attractions,” The New York Times, August 8, 1919.
 Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association quoted in press release for Actors’ Equity Association Do Not Work Notice, January 7, 2019, https://www.actorsequity.org/news/PR/NotALabRat01072019/.
 “Strike Closes Two More Playhouses.” The New York Times, August 14, 1919.
 Chris Jones, “When a show's a Broadway hit, says Actors’ Equity, pay the tryout folks — but #NotALabRat is complicated” Chicago Tribune, January 10, 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ae-actors-equity-broadway-strike-0113-story.html. Jonathan Handel, “Actors Equity on Strike for Share of Record Broadway Profits,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 7, 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/actors-equity-strike-share-record-broadway-profits-1174489.
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