By Nikki Edmonds, Freelance Costume Administrator
I would never have described myself as an activist. I am not a regular protestor; I have never set up a petition and I have no idea how to start lobbying Government.
I have always felt a sense of anger and frustration when I see things that I believe to be unjust, but until recently, my actions were to try and talk through issues and raise them individually, preferring to stand up for others rather than myself. It never occurred to me to seek union help.
I initially joined Bectu because I was told by older industry colleagues that I needed to and that I would get a good rate on a credit card and public liability insurance. Confession: I had public liability insurance for about 3 years before I really understood what it was.
My relationship with the union continued to be on-again, off-again for the next 15 years until I left for a longer period. The reason was that I didn’t need the union anymore; my work was going well, I was freelancing, and the union was for full time permanent employees.
My interaction with Bectu over the years was hit and miss – more miss than hit unfortunately and I know that I am not alone with feeling let down at times and as a costume professional unsupported in favour of permanent building staff.
Most costume workers recognise the union for one main thing – the Bectu/SOLT rates and the lesser spotted (now in disrepute) Bectu/UKT rates. When the pandemic hit the industry one of the first things out the gate was a temporary variation on the deal Bectu/Solt agreement (remember when everyone thought it would be a matter of weeks before things reopened!)
Costume folk joined a series of Zooms organised by CiTEA (Costume in Theatre, Entertainment & Arts) to learn about the variation contracts and what it would mean for them. Most notable was a desire for producers to merge jobs, described as multi-skilling which would apply to wardrobe, hair, and make-up departments. This was unanimously rejected as a concept and rightfully so as the two disciplines are completely different in skill set. However, very few people in those Zooms were active union members and only members would get a vote.
“Why should we join when Bectu don’t do anything for us?”
Through further conversation and open forums, the way the union works finally began to be understood. It is not a service; it is member-led and only as strong as those who join. The more people who sign up and actively participate, the stronger the mandate to the union officials to advocate on our behalf. This is something that I only understood more recently when I re-joined.
The costume membership of the commercial West End branch grew substantially and as a result Bectu officials had a clear mandate to reject the unfair multi-skilling clause and the membership numbers to reject it at a vote if it remained in the agreement. It was removed before the temporary agreement went to the vote which was a big win for costume, hair and make-up.
What does this have to do with freelancers?
AAPTLE (Alliance of Associations in Theatre & Live Events) invited Bectu to engage with all the disciplines very early in the pandemic. As someone who was at that meeting, I can say the officials who joined were heavily scrutinised by AAPTLE representatives, especially surrounding the support of freelancers.
A year went on with individual associations for theatre disciplines working hard to support members, I worked with CiTEA and Freelancers Make Theatre Work and started to notice a common thread in both spaces. The need to improve pay and working conditions and to come back post pandemic fairer and more inclusive. This is probably nothing new to anyone reading this but what I started to see was organisations making headway with issues like inclusivity, anti-racism and mental health support but were stumbling at pay and conditions.
This is because the only real mechanism that can achieve this is the union.
Midway through 2020, conversations started in AAPTLE about forming a new branch of Bectu specifically for freelancers in theatre. Most freelancers who join Bectu are assigned to the more substantial film and television branches and receive information that is not relevant to them, leading to disengagement and ultimately people leaving the union.
This is something that I questioned many times and was told that changing the structure of branches was not easy and we were unlikely to be able to do so.
But as you know, freelancers are a stubborn, resilient bunch and a small group of us pushed and pushed until finally we got the support we needed and, with the help of two brilliant Bectu officials Kevin Carson & Sofie Mason, we are able to bring you a brand-new branch.
So here is the official invite -
Are you paid by fee or daily rate? Are you in lighting, sound, video, automation, set, props, costume, wigs/hair/makeup, or production management? Are you a designer, artist, operator, programmer, associate, engineer, technician, supervisor, buyer or manager? Whatever you do, if you’re a self-employed theatre freelancer, we want you!
Whether or not you’ve been able to work over the last year and half, you can’t have missed the passion amongst theatre freelancers to get together and talk about changing the way we all work. Freelancers want the same things as permanent staff – fair pay; reasonable hours; good work/life balance; respect for physical and mental health; an inclusive and sustainable employment ecosystem.
If you want to know more, your reps are Paul Arditti, David Ayton, George Bach, Leigh Davies, Nikki Edmonds, Alex Fernandes, Fran Horler, Catherine Kodicek, Ned Lay, and Sam Vincent. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week marks union week and Bectu are offering a special introductory rate of £7.50 per month. The conversation surrounding fees and day rates is well underway. For this branch to be successful it needs members, Bectu can go to bat for freelancers, but they need the mandates to do it.
I have had my mind changed, I now understand how engaged with the union I need to be to improve things. Since I have been more involved, I have seen first-hand how much we are being listened to. I know there is a lot of work to do but I am hopeful for the first time in a long time. It is reassuring to know that I can refer a lot of the pay issues I hear about through CiTEA to a strong and supportive team. It leaves us more time to devote to the other issues we care about and work to bring about real change.
I have since embraced the term activist and I am proud to advocate for freelancers in our incredible industry. I believe that talking and connecting is the way to solve things and that by joining together we can stand up and be heard. Inspired by a recent trick-or-treat outing with 10-year-olds in costumes, I see Freelancers Make Theatre Work as an industry superhero and Bectu and AAPTLE members as the avengers who stand with them in the face of adversity. Together we can be better.
*Other unions are available