Christine Payne: Upfront

The coronavirus crisis closed our industry down and we are only now seeing tentative signs of it re-opening, says Equity General Secretary Christine Payne. Now, more then ever, we must stand together

Not for many decades have the members of this union faced such a crisis. Theatres are dark, clubs are closed, variety and entertainment has stopped and radio and TV are only just taking their first cautious steps towards re-starting production.

No one is brave enough to guess when entertainment might get back to some sort of normality but a few key operators are talking about live entertainment venues staying shut at least until early 2021. The industry’s losses run into hundreds of millions and many entertainment businesses both large and small fear they may never reopen.

Through Equity’s own Benevolent Fund and as a Trustee of the Equity Charitable Trust I see week by week the hardship and devastation this has caused many members and their families.

Debts piling up, rent and mortgages in arrears, uncertainty day by day about just getting by. In the face of this tragedy we are doing all we can to help members through. The union has negotiated many COVID 19 agreements with engagers. Equity has dedicated £1 million of its reserves to aid those in most need and Equity’s charity is distributing tens of thousands of its own resources plus £850,000 on behalf of Arts Council England and £15,000 generously donated by podcast and audio book producers Audible. These actions are making a real difference to people’s lives.

And throughout the lockdown Equity has continued to distribute fees to members for the use of their recorded work which I know many members have been relying on.

But as you will read elsewhere in this magazine, welfare support is not all we are doing. Equity has been a consistently strong voice in persuading Government to assist the entertainment business to survive through the lockdown, we have argued that the arts will be crucial in helping us all to understand and come to terms with the tragedy we are going through and we have been in constant touch with employers to hear of the challenges they are facing but also to ensure that when members do start going back to work they do so in the safest possible circumstances. If ever there was need for a strong trade union to represent your values and interests to employers and government it is now.

In the late 1920s Equity was born in the wake of the First World War and the global flu pandemic and on the eve of the great depression. It started small, with actors in the West End and on tours, but now we cover professionals in all areas of entertainment and Equity’s collective agreements have provided benefits and protection. In recent years we have built the union further. At 48,000 we are bigger today than at any time in our history - this is because members of the profession continue to realise that sticking together and looking out for each other is the only way of bringing some stability to uncertain and vulnerable working lives – especially in these difficult times.

But we now have a major challenge.

Many of you reading this article will have faced unprecedented difficulties in the past few months - worried about how you will manage into the future and perhaps even wondering if, under such hardship, staying in Equity is the right decision.

In my final year as your General Secretary I hope that overwhelmingly members of Equity will remain convinced that they have and need a strong trade union and that working together to rebuild the UK’s and the world’s performing arts is the only way forward. The last fifteen years have seen staff and activists working together as never before; taking Equity forward and building on the achievements of the past.

In this magazine you can read about what Equity staff and members together have achieved over our 90 year history: the safety of an Equity contract, the reassurance of an Equity pension, the surety of having insurance behind you and the peace of mind of knowing that when things go wrong help is only a phone call away.

And Equity is now offering a new service for members who need support through periods of anxiety, stress or poor mental health. Our 24-hour helpline (0800 917 6470) has been busier than ever since the start of lockdown.

All this and more has been created by you the members, over the years, working in partnership with staff, in support of each other. Let’s protect it for our futures and for the coming generations of performance professionals.

This is the last time you will be hearing from me on the pages of this magazine. There will be one more edition of the magazine before I retire at the beginning of October, but by then you will have elected a new General Secretary and they will need this space to set out their vision of Equity’s future.
My goal has been to leave the next generation of leadership, activists and staff the strongest possible legacy that they can build on. This could be put at risk by the virus, but it has been built so solidly and so strongly through so much hard work by so many people over more than a decade, that I believe Equity will not only survive but prosper further if members continue to have faith and involvement in the one organisation that truly cares about their working lives.

All my working life has been at Equity – from my first job in 1979 as an organising assistant in the Mechanical Media department, through to the past 15 years as your General Secretary. I can tell you without hesitation that there is no other organisation on this earth I would rather have worked for and I wish my successor the best of luck.

It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to be your General Secretary and I will miss Equity and the wonderful people in it more than I can say.

Much love from me to all of you.

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