Equity General Secretary Paul W Fleming addresses Special Representative Conference


My name is Paul Fleming, and this is my first time speaking at an Equity conference. I am, and it still feels surreal saying it: the General Secretary.

When the process to elect a new General Secretary started, I was asked the obvious question: Why do you want to do it? I think a lot of you at conference, as we look out over what has been the most extraordinary, tumultuous year, will be asking the same question.

So let me tell you. I grew up in Birmingham in the 1990s, in a community divided and ravaged by social and economic chaos. My mom was a health visitor on a Council Estate. My dad was made redundant from his job in the car industry. Nothing symbolised that chaotic shift more than almost every child being collected from school by their fathers, who had lost work in strong, unionised jobs whilst their mothers worked in un-unionised shops, caring work and the low paid public sector.

For lots of trades unionists, my parents among them, it could have felt that things our movement stands for had been lost, that every gain made by working people since the Great Depression had evaporated – the terms and conditions that had been won had been simply ripped away.

But that was not how they felt. Because although the workplaces had gone, trades unionism lived on. It lived on when my dad read to me as a child. When my mom took me – free – to Birmingham Royal Ballet. It lived on when we watched Banner Theatre on picket lines, or coaches still took us to the RSC. It lived on in our community which congregated to see amazing variety acts in pubs and clubs and dance halls, and children’s entertainment & circus in the fetes the unions still organised.

I owe everything I have to the labour movement, but in particular everything I have to the labour of Equity members who gave my family and my community a voice, a place, entertainment and dignity. Through education, debate, more money and less time at work every working person can flourish as an artist.

For many trade unions this was, and is, their goal – to support every working class person to become an artist. Equity of course has that mission, but an added one too: to make sure that every artist has a dignified working life. A life where your art is not used against you – where you’re never told you don’t love it enough if you grumble about poverty pay, instability and danger. A life where united, together as working people, we achieve safer workplaces, more stable work – we end sexual harassment, and ensure mental health is neither a barrier to work nor a management tool of bosses.

In short, conference, I am so proud to have this overwhelming honour because I believe three things above all else: that every working person has the right to be an artist, that every artist has the right to a dignified working life, and that the cause of labour is the hope of the world.

Not some of the workers, not some of the time, not even all of the people all of the time – but the whole world – our planet, our society, our health. Whether your work is in a factory, a field, a home, a hospital, a street corner or stage, or screen, or pubs, or clubs, or old people’s homes or circuses or children’s parties – united in our common quest for a fairer society.

For what are we facing really? A coronavirus pandemic in this year: yes. But something longer, and deeper, than that too: a pandemic of precarity which has lasted decades. For the 90 years of our union’s life we have battled against insecure work and low wages, but the structure of funding, the market, training, society has created such uncertainty that coronavirus was a catalyst, not a cause, of our industry’s existential crisis.

While managers and bosses have squabbled over who gets what, and Westminster government demanded deference as they dole out a pittance – our union has stood strong. Far from weakening our resolve or dividing our interests, we have become more united than ever to not merely save the industry that closed, but build a new one when it opens.

Let’s take enormous hope in this year of despair – our membership in the West End was 75% on the 16th March and 85% on the 16th May. We’ve stood together and helped record numbers with well over £1 million from the Equity Benevolent Fund. We’ve fought to be at the heart of TV and Film sets ensuring they are COVID secure for work to start as soon as we can. In audio and new media, across the whole UK we have networks springing up to ensure that a section of our industry which never stopped, puts its growth behind its artists and not just the pockets of the bosses. In the year to come I am determined we focus on audio and new media like never before. 

In my first week in the job I met three times with representatives of creative teams, and the professional associations who advocate for them. Amongst directors and designers – lighting, set, costume and even sound designers – there’s a new dialogue with Equity to ensure that their union feels like their union, and is fit for purpose to win better and new agreements.

Let’s not forget either how we’ve made the difficult decisions: open, democratic and united. We’ve made variations in our theatre agreements not by dictat but by ballot, through debate with every stage management team and cast. Comradely debate has meant strong compromises with overwhelming support not just from those with jobs cruelly cut short on the 16th March, but those who have worked on our agreements over recent years. I’m so, so proud that we’ve had the most open, the most honest and the most successful of consultations of any union in these difficult times for our industry. 

Unlike some, we’ve never let up the pressure. Of course the government’s film and TV insurance system is welcome – and full credit for that – but the job isn’t done until it adequately covers disabled members, older members and addressing under representation.

We’ve never praised the Self Employed Income Support Scheme – which is a national scandal. 40% of our members have not received one penny from furlough or SEISS and a failure to expand and extend its remit will lead to a more elitist, less representative and less working class industry. At the Commons BEIS Committee though, we didn’t just whinge – our forensic policy work means we can offer a point plan an expertise as to how we’re fixing this. 

This pragmatic approach to how we can improve the broken SEISS offering is contrasted with our radical end goal. Like our amazing comrades at Irish Equity, we want government support for a Minimum Income Guarantee for our workforce. Government and producers benefit from a freelance, flexible and standing workforce – well it’s time they paid for it with a dignified basic income instead of the scandal of Universal Credit.

If Sunak and Dowden are listening: you’ve given a meagre performance this year in a confused pantomime which is part tragedy, part farce. Equity has been noting all the way through, so pause, come talk, and use the rich knowledge of the creative industry workforce to get some 5 star reviews. We’re worth as much in cash to the economy as banking, and considerably more in social value. Downton Abbey does more for this country’s global influence than the nuclear bomb, and acts for older people are an essential part of a functioning care system. Unless you step up, the consequences will be catastrophic.

We’re not just reactive either. I want to do a particular praise for the work of our Dance Committee, and especially their incredible chair, ARC stalwart and inspirational activist Yukiko Masui. With the committee she’s pushing a new idea for the future for all our members across dance, theatre, and variety: regularly funded artists. Beyond the national portfolios, beyond the organisations, there are independent artists who need regular funding to give the space to create work in an environment where they’re not fighting to just survive, working a dozen low paid jobs at any one time.

Today we’ll debate more ideas too, which are at the heart of our rallying cry to every part of the industry: democratise and regionalise. In 2019, our Performance for All document was once a ten year plan, now many elements look like a ten month project. Coming out of our conference I hope we can be mobilising our branches across the UK to demand a new structure to distribute increased funding – regional boards of artists and audiences making the decisions – which is at the centre of that manifesto. Next year we’ll look at taking these values further in the BBC too after the debate at conference today. No longer will Equity just react to the plans of successive governments to marketise a cornerstone of a civilised society – a state broadcaster. In 2021 we’ll look at our own pro-active vision including the merits of co-operatising, regionalising and, yes, properly renationalising our BBC.

We have taken our inspiration from across the globe – Irish Equity’s bold steps on securing a minimum income floor, the speedy safe reopening in New Zealand, the resilience of the German theatre sector. We’ve supported too – paying the rent of our Peruvian comrades to keep their office open via our federation, FIA, and being part of an international push to get the struggle of completely unsupported freelancers raised in their parliament the Diet last week. Many workers, many problems – our global movement the one solution.

I want, conference, to commend to you some people without whom none of our struggle or success could have been possible – our staff. Our staff have been up until 3am putting together comms for members. Have worked overdrive to fight for every last penny for closing theatre shows. They’ve done all they can for members when they can’t pay their subs. They’ve kept the wheels of our membership system oiled as it faced the unprecedented challenge of working remotely. In TV, film and audio, they’ve coped with much smaller reductions in work with significantly reduced staff – and never let a ball drop. Our public policy efforts have been second to none, our tax and benefits advice the envy of the trade union movement. Black Lives Matter isn’t a second priority for our staff, and every staff member is driving the self-reflection our union well needs – and facilitating the activism our members of colour, our members who experience racism – are rightly demanding. Colleagues who have been furloughed have donated, signed and gone through the pain of not being at their desks to support you. Every staff member deserves the unqualified thanks of us all at this conference.

We’ve worked in our back bedrooms. We’ve marched down the streets with panto dames. We’re sponsoring action in the courts with Pregnant Then Screwed. We’ve sat in parliaments politely – in every nation - and screamed at Downing Street with outrage. Our demands for justice in our industry don’t end with a vaccine or with coronavirus, they end when we get the justice our members demand.

Why do we do this? We do it inspired by the members who formed our union 90 years ago. We do it for the most marginalised voices today. But more than that; we do it for the members who will benefit from the brighter tomorrow that you, we, our union will build. 

Looking after tomorrow does involve difficult decisions today, and our first motion is just such a decision. We will experience a drop in members despite our best efforts. The nobility of our cause does not make us immune from volatile stock markets, global instability. As the day when non-distributable royalties become identifiable and distributable comes ever closer we must pre-emptively deal with the structural hole in our finances that this leaves. Your council faces tough decisions in the months to come, and members are not being asked to pay more whilst we rest on our laurels. Members are asked to pay more while we do more, and while we spend less. This is tough, but it is right – I have taken over a union which is stronger than ever before, and I intend to build on that. We will make sure we have the finances we need to fund the activism our mission depends on, and retain the independence from parties and bigger unions so we can always speak truth to power.

My task as General Secretary is daunting, but less daunting because I am not alone. We have. A unified Council around our objectives for an independent trade union, financially stable, and winning for members. For perhaps the first time in our history too we have an officer team, Council, and General Secretary united in their mandate to make us not a weak imitation of a guild or association, but a strong, fighting trade union. I cannot thank the officers, and in particular our president enough for the support they show me – and the critical friends that they always are. I can only hope to show the patience that they have shown me.

The S in the SRC stands for Special. This year is certainly that. Equity has been extraordinary in extraordinary times, and today you make the decisions which mean that we can stay that way through 2021 and beyond. Please be patient with me – but do not be patient in demanding the justice and dignity our members deserve.