The importance of joining the union: Rachel Cole with Rob Mills

A note from Rachi:

When I’m chatting to a guy on Tinder, some questions I get out of the way early include: Do you have cold sores?  Can I have a copy of your last pay slip? And, how do you feel about the Labor party and union membership?  #lowmaintenance.  (In my defence, 76% of the Australian population are carriers of the Herpes Simplex Type 1 or cold sore virus)- and this clean whistle wants no part.  If the percentage of men who were union members were as high as those who have cold sores, I’d be well on my way to wed by now.

Rob Mills
Rob Mills

In an industry like the Arts, where money is often tight, artists work from a posture of passion and there are 500 other female ‘movers’ who can belt to a C# willing to kneecap you for an ensemble job, it’s no surprise that workers rights can be the last thing on the mind of a producer.  (And unfortunately, the last thing on the lips of a performer.)  We are often asked to work for free, for ‘exposure’ or at fees well below minimum wage.  This may be because there is not enough money to go around, but sometimes, it’s because someone higher up is not respecting your workplace rights.

A union is an organized group of workers who collectively use their strength to have a voice in their workplace. Through a union, workers have the ability to impact wages, work hours, benefits, workplace health and safety, job training and other work-related issues.  Unions exist to serve the social and economic benefit of the employee, whereas producers exist to serve the social and economic benefit of the show and their profit.

You can thank MEAA (our union- the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance) for your minimum wage.  The basic minimum wage in Australia is $659 per week.  Minimum wage for a performer in the Performers Collective Agreement (PCA- an agreement negotiated by the union with producers) is $1067 a week.  That weekly base wage is $400 a week higher than the Australian minimum because the union is fighting on your behalf.

Historically, trade unions have been responsible for: Sunday loadings, public holiday loadings, maternity leave, annual leave, equal pay, occupational health and safety laws, covering you for injury, occupational superannuation and periodic pay increases.  These rights do not come for free, someone fought for them for us.  Someone else lobbied and collectively bargained, and yet now, we often take those rights for granted.

NB: This is not to say that there aren’t some wonderful and ethical producers around who do the best by their staff, but some don’t.

Rob Mills as Danny in GREASE. Image by Jeff Bubsy
Rob Mills as Danny in GREASE. Image by Jeff Bubsy

Rob Mills saw Phantom of the Opera at an early age.  Shortly thereafter, he started piano lessons, but really just wanted to play footy.  After high school he played in bands several nights a week until at 21, he made the top 5 on Australian Idol.  Following reality TV success, his first musical was Grease the Arena Spectacular where he learnt to admire those with a work hard party hard mindset.  He was then cast as Fiyero in the Australian premiere of Wicked.  After playing leads in both Legally Blonde and Grease, he is currently staring as Sam in Ghost the Musical.  He has also been nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award and is a champion of Equity, the Actors Union.  Below are the reasons he advocates joining the union.

They’re on YOUR side

Any governing body, which stands up for the rights of its people, is so important.  “The union has your interests in mind; A producer has the interest of the show and its profits in mind- it’s a business.  I had a situation where a producer wanted us to work within the 11-hour turnaround time and not pay the cast overtime.  With the power of the union behind us, as a company we came together, and negotiated a suitable arrangement, which upheld our workplace rights.”

Free legal advice

“You can get free legal advice- call them up!   You know that they’re always batting for you.”  This could be contract related, tax related or a misbehaving producer.  “For example, I had an issue where my face was on a t-shirt and I hadn’t approved it, and it hadn’t been specified in the contract.  I called the union for advice and they helped sort it out.”  Likewise with tax issues, they even have barristers who can work on your behalf if you’re unfairly audited.

 They know your rights better than you do

“Joining the union is particularly important for younger performers who might not be as aware of their workplace rights.   Older performers tend to learn along the way from experience.  Read the PCA summary on the Equity website!

There is still some work to do with the PCA.  I’d love to see producers legislated to supply compulsory Physiotherapy depending on the dance nature of the show.  I’d also love Performer rights to be taught at full time courses, WAAPA, VCA, Dance schools etc.…”

They win battles

Research the history of the union.  Learn about what they have done for you, your rights and residuals.  “I understand that people are worried about money, rent, about paying money to the union they might not have.  When people say, I can’t afford to join the union, the truth is you can’t afford not to!!”  You know that 70$ cab allowance to and from the airport? Union.  You know your right to your own room when on tour in company accommodation? Union.  You know how the living away from home allowances (LAHA) go up every year? Union.  Overtime pay?

Rob Mills as Fiyero and Amanda Harrison as Elphaba in Wicked
Rob Mills as Fiyero and Amanda Harrison as Elphaba in Wicked

Union.  The list goes on.

 Rights aren’t free

Employment rights should be free, but the unfortunate truth is that they’re not. “The amount of money that you pay for a yearly union membership depends on how much you earn, but is basically a couple of nights out.  I know I’d take that offer any day.   People happily take their per diems, which the union fought for, but can’t pay half a week of that allowance for a year of union membership.  That seems a bit silly.”

For years, Equity has fought to increase a performers minimum wage.  It is now $1067 a week.  Your agent negotiates your personal margin above that minimum.  Yet, performers are happy to pay an agent 10% of that total for an entire contract, but seem hesitant to make a small yearly contribution to the union, which awards them the majority of their pay.

Many people fought to make those wage minimums legal and to make agreements happen.  Those people won’t do it for free.  In the grand scheme of things they aren’t getting paid a lot.

The union are a middle man

Equity provides a buffer between a cast and a producer to do the dirty work for you.  “This protects your working relationship with a producer while also protecting your workplace rights.   For example, the union helped us to be paid a fee for the cast recording on Grease, which we otherwise would have missed out on.”

Safety in numbers

“It can be very tricky for one or two cast members to stand up to an employer and assert their rights.”  When the whole cast is unionized, there is safety in numbers and the employer is much more likely to listen and not single people out.

Ghost the musical. Photo by Jeff Busby
Rob in Ghost the musical. Photo by Jeff Busby

Critical mass

The lower the union membership the lower the ability to collectively bargain and the more temptation producers have to undercut the performers.  “The more people who join, the more we can achieve.”

 It’s not about you

Sometimes you hear people say they don’t need to join the union because they work for a good producer.  “Union membership is also about supporting your colleagues who aren’t as fortunate.  The more members we have, the more power we have, and the more power we have, the more we can ensure all producers abide by the rules.  Furthermore, even if you don’t need them now, one day you will.”

 Further reading

If you want to join the union MEAA: Actors Equity, click here. (Union fees depend on how much money you’re earning as an actor and can be suspended during periods of unemployment)

If you want to read a summary of your rights about your minimum wage, overtime, meal allowances, annual leave etc., see the PCA Summary.

If you want to read the full shebang of legal detail (nerds like me will love this), click here.





Rachel Cole

Rachel has a degree in Psychology from The University of Sydney but is currently masquerading as understudy for Miss Honey and Mrs Wormwood in the Australian production of Matilda the Musical. She likes to think about what makes people tick. She also likes: Podcasts, politics, pepperoni pizza, property, puns, puppies and cheap things. If you know of a political podcast full of puns we can listen over a cheap pepperoni pizza while we walk a cheap dog looking at cheap property, we might just be fast friends. Follow Rachel on Instagram at: @rachelacole.

Rachel Cole

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