MU Coronavirus Response in Commercial Theatre by Jim Fleeman

Introduction

When coronavirus forced theatres to close their doors in March 2020 it put the industry, like so many others, into confusion, panic and disarray. At the time it was recognised that the coronavirus was indiscriminate in its reach, and the challenge to industry leaders was in marrying concerns for their businesses with those of their employees.

The Society of London Theatres approached this challenge with more self-interest than most and musicians working in theatre naturally turned to their Union to ensure that their interests and welfare were respected and protected.

The following article is an in-depth analysis of the process of negotiations, explained with a level of detail that exposes an intransigent Union Executive that refused to support its members and stand up for their rights at a time when they needed it most. 

Proposal History

  1. On 14th May 2020 Robert Noble, Chair of the SOLT Negotiating Committee, wrote to Naomi Pohl, Deputy General Secretary of the MU, to formalize variations to the SOLT/MU Agreement that they had discussed in a Zoom meeting on 6th May 2020. The variations would last for 26 weeks from the opening of a production, included reductions in pay of up to 50% and suspension of additional payment for Sunday performances. Mr Noble stated that the variations “really are the minimum measures that are required”.

The MU rejected this proposal after consultation with committees. 

  1. In August 2020, SOLT approached the MU with a new proposal. The significant pay reductions had been quietly dropped, but the proposal included a plan to permanently remove existing provisions for Sunday performances, with referral to ACAS if the Union insisted on retaining the terms of agreement that existed when the pandemic struck. 

This proposed Variation was to last until June 2023, with four-monthly reviews beginning January 2022. Under the Review Mechanism the Variation would fall away when box office revenue for four-month period is equal to or greater than same period in 2019.

The reviews would take into account Box Office revenue from the whole of the West End, not from individual productions, meaning that members – already in dire financial circumstances – might find themselves working on profitable shows at reduced wages.

The MU rejected this proposal after consultation with committees on the grounds that members would reject it. SOLT insisted it was put before members anyway. The proposal was put to ballot in October 2020 and rejected by a majority of 84%.

  1. Faced with an impasse in negotiations, on 18th November SOLT requested the matter be taken to ACAS for a process of collective conciliation. The Union accepted.

Three working days later, SOLT withdrew the request and approached the Union with a refined proposal. During those few days, it had become clearer that productions that had planned to open with social distancing during December would not be able to do so.

The refined proposal that SOLT made was identical in terms of content to the previous proposal, the only difference being that an early review of the Variation was removed (meaning that members would have to continue to endure pay-cuts if variations were removed before October 2022 for other employees) and the MU had reached an informal agreement with SOLT that the terms of the existing 2019/20 Agreement would become the default at midnight on 2nd October 2022, and Sundays would be paid at double time from that date.

Whilst Horace Trubridge reassured members that this important concession had been obtained, the proposal itself makes no mention of a ‘default’ position or gives any mention of a date on which the variations revert to it. In fact, the proposal indicates in Clauses 1 and 5 that the Variation will form the basis of future negotiations, not the 2019 Agreement which would be superseded by the Variation once ratified.

This is an important and notable omission: proposals for Equity members contained the following guarantee:

“At the end of January 2022, or the end of the 12-month (52 week) period (being no later than and including Sunday 3 April 2022), the Sunday performance payment will be payable at the 2019/2020 rate.”

No such commitment was made by SOLT for MU members. The notion that provision for Sunday pay will return to that of the pre-pandemic agreement is one that exists only in the assurance Horace Trubridge gave in Zoom meetings and appears in writing only in the covering email from the Executive recommending acceptance of the November proposal.

The Union embarked on a campaign which aimed to persuade members to vote for the proposal out of fear of the consequences of refusal. This campaign was successful: members voted with a 72% majority to accept and there was a drop of 17% in responses compared with the October ballot.

Union Response To Proposals

When SOLT made their request for large scale pay-cuts in early May 2020, Julian Bird, the CEO of SOLT, was telling theatre employees that no-one had enough information to formulate plans for the re-opening of productions, and that the future was an unknown quantity. This was the prevailing view at the time for businesses and society across the world. 

Mr Noble’s statement that SOLT’s proposed variations were necessary “minimum measures” could not be made honestly under the circumstances that Mr Bird specified, as the measures could not be quantified as ‘minimum’ without some detailed knowledge. 

As early as May 2020 therefore, the Union Executive had been aware that SOLT were prepared to act with an unnecessary haste, to justify their actions using false premises and to make proposals that indicated a disregard for the concerns and struggles facing MU members (by applying uniform pay cuts regardless of a productions’ costs and financial status, employees would find themselves enduring pay-cuts that were not required at a time when their perilous financial position was widely acknowledged).

The Coronavirus crisis in itself should have prompted strategy meetings between the key members of the Union Executive, as was happening in organisations all over the world. In relation to SOLT, the Union Executive could and should have prepared for the negotiations and proposals that they knew were coming. They had been forewarned that future proposals may continue to be unnecessarily disadvantageous to members and include speculative pay-cuts and attempts to alter terms of employment.

The Union Executive could have responded to SOLT’s proposal of May 2020 by stating a commitment in future negotiations to protecting members from unnecessary financial hardship (members should not be prevented from earning a full wage where it was possible for them to do so) and to protect the integrity of agreements in place when the pandemic struck. Both of these aims were, and remain, entirely reasonable and in line with the Union’s stated purpose: to “maximise the overall income of musicians as well as protecting and improving working conditions”.

The Union’s negotiating partners not only set the agenda, the Executive didn’t approach the negotiations with much professionalism or enthusiasm. They did not seek refinements to language or the inclusion of safeguards that would be considered general good practice and seek to promote trust and good faith between negotiating parties.

The phrase ‘normal working day’, which appears in the proposal with regard to Sundays, is an example of a use of language that may be driven by motive: the phrase could subsequently support this becoming a permanent feature in future agreements. This was pointed out to the Executive, and they could easily have sought to have this phrase removed. If SOLT objected to its removal this would have given some insight into their deliberate use of the phrase and future intentions, and factored into the Union’s negotiation strategy.

Horace Trubridge’s solemn promise that Sunday pay will revert to double time on 3rd October 2022 was a key element in persuading members to accept the December 2020 proposal. Yet, the proposal itself makes no mention of such a condition. Astonishingly, when this was pointed out to Jamie Pullman, he admitted they were unaware of the omission. After all that had transpired to get to the point of having a proposal they could recommend, it seemed no one in the Union Executive had actually bothered to read it.

Similarly, when Deputy General Secretary Naomi Pohl was quizzed about the specifics of the October proposal’s Review Mechanism, neither she, nor anyone else on the Executive could answer. The vagueness of the Review Mechanism had not been noticed by the Executive and it was left to members to point it out.

Despite not officially recommending the proposal made in August 2020 (and put to ballot in October 2020) the Union Executive was committed to defending its content. They insisted that it was important that an agreement be reached with haste to allow for productions that wanted to open under social distancing rules and that the variations were proposed with these conditions in mind. They insisted that SOLT were acting in good faith.

At the same time, they admitted that SOLT refused to guarantee, or indicate any intent towards a return to the content of the 2019 Agreement, and that it had put the MU on notice that it intended to focus on removing the Agreement’s provision for Sunday pay in future negotiations.

When members expressed concerns that the proposal would unnecessarily penalise them financially in the short term and in terms of negotiation of future agreements, the Union Executive reacted with anger, indignation and alarming naivety.

Members of one West End orchestra, frustrated by the lack of engagement of the Union Executive to concerns its members had been raising since March 2020, decided to communicate directly with colleagues prior to the first ballot. An email was sent outlining areas of concern in the Proposal and what acceptance would mean for the future. The orchestra in question hoped that its unified response to the ballot would encourage widespread engagement from other orchestras and provide the Union Executive with a clear mandate from its members for future negotiation.

The ballot was rejected by 84%, but rather than accept this as the mandate from members it clearly was, the Union Executive responded to the emails’ existence and content in a way that was quite extraordinary.

The Chair of the Executive Committee, Dave Lee, suggested the orchestra’s MU steward should resign his position on the WESC. In a meeting, Naomi Pohl expressed distress at the email and the ballot result, and, bizarrely, her consequent uncertainty about how she should regard members’ state of mind. She wrote a letter to members saying that the email had “undermined the balloting process” and “damaged the Unions’ credibility”. Her letter accused the members of the orchestra – incorrectly – of spreading “falsehoods and inaccuracies” and quoted offending passages and her refutation of them.

This refutation relied on the removal of context and language from the original email, was occasionally contradictory and showed a disturbing naivety in understanding the implications contained in the proposal. Rather than refute arguments in the same spirit of reason and careful examination in which they were made, the Union attempted to discredit them by misinterpreting statements and misrepresenting both the spirit and content of the argument.

Despite not recommending it, the rejection of the October 2020 proposal by such a large majority was the cause of great consternation for the Union Executive.

Rather than respecting and responding to the views of an overwhelming majority and accepting the result as a mandate for future negotiation, the Union Executive attempted to frame the outcome of the ballot as being the result of a campaign of lies and misinformation, to the extent that it suggested the legitimacy of the ballot was questionable.

They were keen to construct a narrative in which 84% of members had been swayed in their opinion by a small group who maliciously spread falsehoods, to the extent that members voted against a proposal they would otherwise have voted for. This was an appalling dismissal of the democratically expressed views of a very significant majority of members, by no means all of whom had read the email that caused such upset within the Executive.

SOLT were reportedly dismayed by the overwhelming rejection of the October 2020 proposal. In an attempt to move forward, the Union agreed to the Zoom meetings with orchestras that some members had been asking for since August 2020. These meetings showed there was widespread dismay at SOLT’s approach, particularly in forcing the majority of productions that could not open under social distancing to abide by variations that were designed to enable those that could – ignoring a difference in potential revenue of up to 75%.

Members also objected to the lack of any guarantee that SOLT would not use the hiatus caused by the pandemic to permanently alter the provision for Sunday pay regardless of necessity, and to the seemingly arbitrary time-scales employed in the duration of variations.

On 16th November 2020, the Union Executive told SOLT and Union members that their position was now that they were “only prepared to go to ballot on the basis that the variation agreement will apply solely to shows that open with social distancing”.

When SOLT approached the Union with a refined proposal a few days later, the Union abandoned this position without attempting to defend it. They also abandoned the option of the conciliation process that SOLT had suggested (and hastily retracted: the obvious implication being that SOLT were not confident that the process would benefit them).

The Union Executive rushed to recommend and push through the new proposal. They acknowledged that opening with social distancing was an unlikely scenario for the vast majority of productions due to the recent cancellation of those that tried. However, whilst they had previously justified the content of proposals and the haste in ratifying them as being necessary for productions opening under social distancing, they now insisted the same measures were necessary regardless of the circumstances under which productions opened. The pay cuts they had insisted were necessary to allow productions to survive with a 25% – 50% capacity were now equally necessary for productions operating with 100% capacity.

In the proposal that they pressed so hard to be accepted, had the Union Executive actually negotiated improvements that provided a better safeguard for members than previous proposals? Had the Union received meaningful assurances regarding Sundays and the impact of pay-cuts for those working on profitable productions?

Not at all.

The assurances given regarding the restoration of provision for Sunday shows were without substance, as the Union freely acknowledged in its email recommending acceptance. And in order to win this token, the Union had given away any opportunity for an early end to pay-cuts should they cease to become necessary.

Whilst the language differed slightly from previous proposals, the December 2020 proposal that the Union aggressively championed offered no additional guarantee or protection for Union members. The wording might have been rearranged to the advantage of a Union Executive desperate to reach an agreement with SOLT regardless of the consequences for their members. But from a pragmatic point of view, and from the point of view of MU members, the new proposal offered nothing that made it substantially different. Except that the Union negotiated the removal of any early review of variations, meaning Union members would get a first review of their situation 10 months after Equity and Bectu members.

Protection of Member’s Financial Position

Very early in the crisis, it had been recognised that a significant proportion of musicians would not benefit from the SEISS or the CJRS. This was especially true of musicians who worked in commercial theatre, the majority of whom found themselves locked out of income support schemes.

Many theatres and theatre organisations such as RSC and NT were extremely cognisant of the situation faced by its workforce and had a goal, where possible, not to exacerbate the dire financial situation their employees faced.

SOLT did not do this. From their first proposal in May 2020, they had decided that protecting the workforce from unnecessary further financial hardship was not to be a consideration. Rather than existing only out of necessity, the variations from existing agreements would apply to all productions equally, disregarding significant differences in costs, scale, audience demographic, capacity etc

Variations would be binding until an arbitrarily chosen date, which remained unchanged in proposals from August 2020 on, despite the inarguable ignorance that prevailed at that time – before the development of vaccines, the knowledge of variants to the virus, the necessity of additional lockdowns and other restrictions, the widespread acknowledgement of how little was known about the virus itself, the way the pandemic would continue to impact society, and how countries might negotiate their way back to something resembling the pre-pandemic world.

In other words, SOLT chose to enforce wage-cuts whether they were necessary or not, and in full cognisance of the fact that they might unnecessarily prolong the financial misery of Union members in doing so. Despite being fully aware of the pandemic’s financial toll on theatre employees, SOLT’s proposals would actively prevent them from earning a full wage even where they were able to do so.

The idea that this was necessary to protect collective bargaining is facile. Nor would the administration of a necessity-based approach be especially difficult. There are few reasons that SOLT could have chosen to enforce wage-cuts on those working on profitable productions. If one discounts opportunistic greed, then bureaucratic expedience is the most plausible excuse.

This was apparently acceptable to the Union Executive, who at no time, and despite repeated requests from members to do so, objected to the prospect of financially desperate members having wages cut not just to enable a production to survive, but also to boost the profit share of SOLT’s membership if and when their productions became profitable. 

There is no question that the Union could and should have objected to this situation. If only from a moral perspective there was no justification for SOLT employing such a brutal approach, and the Union could easily have used this fact to represent its membership to the most basic extent – to prevent members from enforced, unnecessary and unfair financial disadvantage. Given that that is one of the Union’s most basic functions, it is extraordinary that the Executive felt no compunction to protect its members in this regard. But when one considers the specific circumstances –most notably the well-publicised, appalling financial position of its members – the disinterest and inaction of the Union is shameful.

Sundays: “Why would I do that?”

The issue of additional payment for Sunday performances has long been a source of frustration for SOLT. Sunday shows may prove to be more profitable than some mid-week performances, but the additional costs in wages for production employees mitigate the additional profits that might be generated. Some SOLT members have claimed that these additional costs mean that Sunday performances are prohibitive and this may lead to a reduction in the overall duration of a production’s run. (It might be noted that, of the handful of productions with Sunday performances as at March 2020, over 25% were amongst the longest running shows in the history of the West End.) The real issue surrounding Sunday performances is that producers can only maximise profits and income by reducing staff wages, and agreements exist to prevent them from doing this.

For those employed in theatre, the additional payments for Sunday performances provide some compensation for the additional strain they place on a workforce that already has a performance schedule that significantly impacts their life outside of work, and this impact is especially severe on those with school-age families.

From the beginning of the pandemic, SOLT were determined to include Sunday pay in negotiations. For Bectu and MU members they refused to include any guarantee, or even signal an intention to return to pre-pandemic Sunday pay provisions in future agreements, regardless of prevailing economic conditions.

Regrettably, the most plausible explanation for SOLT’s position is that there was an intention to use the hiatus, chaos and misery caused by the pandemic to gain an advantage in subsequent negotiations. 

As of April 2021, all productions that have announced plans for re-opening are including at least one Sunday performance. When variation agreements expire, Sunday performances will have been the norm for the West End for a significant period. It can be expected that producers will be unwilling to reduce the additional income these generate for them by returning to pre-pandemic agreements, irrespective of the abandonment of morality that this would involve.

The MU Executive seem ambivalent at best about having to argue the case for Sunday pay. Dave Lee, the Chairman of the Executive Committee, has expressed his belief that its loss is “inevitable” and favours the abandonment of additional pay on Sundays in favour of enhanced pay overall. The obvious short sightedness of this approach is apparent now that all musicians are likely to be working Sunday performances and earning considerably less than they would have done had the Union Executive made an effort to protect the pre-pandemic agreement.

In Zoom meetings, the General Secretary did nothing to reassure members that the Union was committed to protecting this important feature of commercial theatre agreements. He acknowledged that he was aware how important the issue of Sundays is to members who work in theatre, but cited this as an anomaly as other areas of the music industry did not have comparable agreements. He was not prepared to acknowledge the difference in working conditions between commercial theatre and casual engagements or subsidised orchestras. The Executive were prepared to indulge members in their desire to protect Sunday pay, but clearly had no inclination to do so otherwise.

This was emphasised when the General Secretary was asked if he would seek guarantees from SOLT regarding the retention of provisions for Sundays as per the 2019/20 Agreement. His reply was:

“Why would I do that?”

According to the Union’s published accounts, Horace Trubridge’s salary and assets amount to over £197,000. He is amongst the highest paid Union officials in the country, with one of the smallest memberships. He is General Secretary of a Union that exists to “maximise the employment and overall income of musicians as well as protecting and improving working conditions.” And when asked if would seek a guarantee regarding existing provisions that embody the idea of maximising income and protecting working conditions, his reply is: why?

This shocking exchange exemplifies the Union’s unwillingness to function on behalf of its members.

Union members had been pointing out to the Executive the risk of SOLT permanently undermining the pre-pandemic provisions for Sunday working since August 2020. The Executive’s decision not to attempt to protect or mitigate the danger of permanent alterations to Sunday working was an active, conscious and deliberate choice. As it was also a choice to allow members working on profitable shows to have wages reduced at SOLT’s discretion.

In making these choices, in choosing not tomaximisemembers’ income” or “protect and improve members working conditions”, Horace Trubridge, Naomi Pohl and Dave Lee betrayed their Union’s stated purpose and their members. They did so at a time when their members were suffering more than ever before, and at a time when much of humanity was looking out for the welfare of their fellow man without being paid to do so.

Against the backdrop of Coronavirus, at arguably the most important time in the Union’s history, the Executive abandoned their stated commitment to protecting the welfare and future of its current and future members.

Should the obvious happen, and Sunday performances at reduced pay become the norm, then it will be possible to calculate the loss to musicians that resulted from the Executive’s decision not to make an attempt to protect the wages and conditions of musicians in a post pandemic world.

That loss will be several millions of pounds year after year after year.

MU and SOLT

The Union Executive are disinclined to challenge SOLT, even when they have good reason to do so. The Chair of the Executive Committee has reportedly signalled his desire to accept every proposal that SOLT have put to the MU during this crisis, and his apparent preference for appeasement is shared by the General and Deputy General Secretary. Horace Trubridge talks about his relationship with Bob Noble as being that of old friends, and it is clear that he feels uncomfortable about challenging SOLT’s chief negotiator.

In one meeting, Naomi Pohl said that the Union Executive were “in the uncomfortable position of making SOLT’s arguments for them” but they continued to be committed to this as a means of counter-argument when members’ expressed concerns.

In one lengthy justification for the Union’s recommendation to accept the final proposal, Horace Trubridge said that producers needed the variations because they feared the West End would never financially recover from the pandemic. When a member pointed out that there was no evidence for that concern, Horace Trubridge grew agitated and asked that the member not misrepresent him or “put words into his mouth’’: he was reporting what SOLT had said, not supporting it.

This was typical of the Executive’s response when members raised objections to SOLT’s questionable reasoning and heavy-handed approach. The Executive actively promoted SOLT’s arguments, at the same time as distancing themselves from them. In doing this it became impossible to pin down what the Union Executive stood for or the extent to which they were prepared to stand up for their members’ interests.  And so, the Executive became impossible to trust.

Whilst it is no excuse, it is also no surprise that a majority of members chose not to vote in either ballot, and that nearly a fifth of those that voted in the first ballot had given up bothering by the second. What would be the point? The Executive expended more effort representing the interests of SOLT’s membership to MU Members than the other way round. It argued SOLT’s case with a commitment and ferocity that it was not prepared to employ in support of its own members. It took SOLT’s position in opposition to its own members when they raised reasonable questions and concerns, even to the extent of falsely accusing those who questioned SOLT’s position of being liars and spreading misinformation. Of course members became disinclined to engage with the process. The Union Executive had made a decision about what they wanted members to do, and were prepared to resort to extreme measures if they did not agree.

Horace Trubridge proclaimed in one meeting “You (the membership) tell us what to do, not the other way round”. In discussing the rejection of the October proposal, he acknowledged that members had “a real problem” with the lack of a guarantee regarding a return to Sunday pay as specified in the Agreement. Yet his response was neither to obtain the guarantee that the members asked for, or attempt to mitigate SOLT’s haste to tie people into disadvantageous, lengthy and binding variations.

The Executive hurriedly and aggressively promoted acceptance of SOLT’s proposal despite members’ concerns. Members who questioned this, objected to it or still sought the guarantees they had asked for and not received, were regarded, privately spoken of and publicly treated by Horace Trubridge, Dave Lee, and other members of the EC as being “strident” antagonists. Horace Trubridge preferred that the Executive ignore the objections of those who spoke out and concentrate instead on what he referred to as the ‘silent majority’, a term coined by Richard Nixon in his efforts to disregard those who objected to his policies in Vietnam.

Both Horace Trubridge and Naomi Pohl were committed to ensuring that the interests and concerns of SOLT’s membership were fully understood by MU members, to an extent they did not employ when representing their own members. In November, Horace Trubridge and Naomi Pohl arranged a Zoom meeting with SOLT’s chief negotiator and Union members. Prior to the meeting, Horace Trubridge told members:

“You must attend the webinars with Robert Noble, you must get your feelings and all your personal anecdotal stuff across so he fully understands the devastation you’ve all been through and that you don’t want to be fucked around anymore. It is really important you get that across. It doesn’t matter how many times I say it, it’s not seeming to make any difference, so we need you to get your point across to them. We need you to understand that we are going to push for what you want,”

In practice, the option for members to speak to Robert Noble was removed. Members were asked to submit questions for him instead. Naomi Pohl chaired the meeting with Robert Noble and had invited other members of SOLT to attend and lend support. In spite of Horace Trubridge’s plea, Naomi Pohl rejected questions that challenged SOLT’s position, concentrating instead on asking questions whose answers could reinforce it and even supplying the answers herself on occasion.

The Zoom meeting that Horace Trubridge had promoted as a means by which members could appeal directly to SOLT, ended up with the MU simply providing SOLT with a platform on which they could stand unchallenged, and members who wished to question them were refused an opportunity to do so. It resembled a Fox News interview with Donald Trump, with the Deputy General Secretary of the MU playing the deferential host.

No such efforts were made by the Union Executive on behalf of their members. The Union could have put members onto the negotiating team. The Executive could have provided a platform on which their members were able to make their position clear to SOLT. They did neither of these things, nor did they attempt to strongly represent their members in any other way. Indeed, in the one instance where it became clear that SOLT had become aware of how MU members were feeling, the Executive made every effort to distance itself from them.

Fear, Politics and Subsequent Ballots

The Variation proposal that was ratified in December 2020 was done so at the recommendation of the Union Executive, who expended considerable effort to ensure its acceptance. Whilst they assured members that they had an agreement to return to payment at double time on Sundays in October 2022, they acknowledged that this return and the retention of this element of the pre-pandemic agreement was in no way assured, and that SOLT would continue to try to have it removed.

This scant and empty assurance was all they could manage by way of recommending acceptance of the proposal. It was impossible for the Executive to recommend the proposal based on its merits, as there weren’t any. The primary basis on which the Executive recommended acceptance was out of fear the consequences of rejection.

The three Zoom meetings held in the run up to the ballot were notable for the steady stream of members expressing concerns with the proposal and surprise at the Executive’s recommendation to accept. Even though the Executive invited members of its committees to attend the meetings and speak in support of its recommendation (along lines that were clearly agreed beforehand) it is impossible to ignore the overwhelming conclusion that MU members could not see enough in the proposal to accept. And the Union Executive was not able to counter the arguments made and issues raised by members that indicated the proposal was more likely to erode their future than protect it. 

If the Executive could not recommend the proposal on its merits or reassure members that their concerns with it were unfounded, they had to find another way of ensuring acceptance and they did this by promoting the fear of what would happen if the proposal was rejected.

Dave Lee and Naomi Pohl insisted that without an agreement there would be a “race to the bottom”: that producers will vie with each other to see how quickly they are able to reduce wages.

This statement came from the same Executive who had reassured members that these producers were honest, decent people and employers who would not disenfranchise their workforce simply out of opportunity. Part of their recommendation of the Proposal, and a counter-argument to concerns with it, was based on their stated belief that SOLT and their members were inherently trustworthy.

The Union stated that rejection of the proposal would threaten the future of collective bargaining, would lead to producers deciding not to open productions, would prevent members from ‘getting back to work’, might lead to the collapse of SOLT and collective agreements, etc.

None of these outcomes stands up to scrutiny, and whilst they remain as possibilities, they are a long way from embodying the “realism” that the Executive stated was its driving force in making their recommendation.

Realism, if it was of genuine interest to the Executive, would not involve the rejection of outcomes that have already occurred. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that, on previous occasions when agreement has not been reached, SOLT have proposed the parties agree to collective conciliation. At different times during the pandemic, they offered this as a solution to both the MU and Bectu and it was specified in proposals as a pathway to agreement in the event of an impasse.

This is to be expected. The idea of the organisation that represents the wealthy elite of the West End ripping up agreements with its financially distressed workforce in the middle of a global crisis, because the workforce refused to accept changes that were arguably unnecessary, unfair and exploitative, would not be one that SOLT would be able to easily justify. It has all the makings of PR disaster.

But in the run-up to the hastily convened December 2020 ballot, the Executive refused to consider the conciliation process as a possibility, let alone the outcome that might be most likely. They refused to be drawn into the consideration that the organisation they insisted was decent and trustworthy would attempt to find a meaningful solution to an impasse rather than throw its toys out of the pram and flounce away.

The Union Executive knows that the difference between ‘reality’ and ‘possibility’ is not merely one of nuance, and they know the inherent dishonesty in insisting on the former term when the latter is more accurate. They are a political organisation and the use of cheap politics to influence people might be excusable, were it not a time of global crisis when the real, human welfare of their members might have encouraged them to give more consideration to the objective reality. They chose political brinkmanship over the welfare of their members and used scare tactics when they were unable to convince their members using reason and fact.

The Union Executive’s fear of the consequences of rejecting proposals has an impact that goes beyond the immediate concerns of the pandemic. The Union’s negotiating partners now know that the Executive will recommend agreements that disadvantage their members, erode terms and conditions and reduce wages if the alternative is the risk of not having an agreement.

When the Variation Agreement expires, SOLT will embark on negotiations knowing that they only have to threaten to walk away to have the Executive agree to their demands. When SOLT propose that the pre-pandemic provisions for Sundays should be dropped, they can rely on the Union Executive to recommend acceptance and campaign for it.

The Union Executive assures members that they have autonomy and the power to influence decisions through the ballot, but this is an assurance made with crossed fingers. Members now know that if the Union Executive doesn’t support the reversion of Sunday pay to pre-pandemic agreements, they will ensure that it doesn’t revert. They will do this regardless of members wishes, objections, welfare and future, and regardless of the betrayal of the Union’s stated purpose. They will be able to justify their actions by invoking the threat to collective agreements that rejection might engender.

The same will be true when SOLT wish to drop doubling payments (another element of agreements that the Chair of the Executive Committee and others are ambivalent about), or holiday pay, or open-ended contracts, or any of the elements of the agreement that work to musicians’ advantage but not to those who employ them. All a negotiating partner has to do to ensure compliance with their wishes is point out that non-compliance may damage the sanctity of collective agreements.

Now that it is known that the Union Executive will recommend measures that are disadvantageous to their members purely out of fear of what will happen if they don’t, there is no protection for members from the steady erosion of income and working conditions that is likely to result.

In the most challenging time the MU has had to face, this was the simple means by which Horace Trubridge, Naomi Pohl and Dave Lee were brought to heel. Their weakness and disinclination to fight to protect the interests of their members is now a matter of fact within the theatre industry, and it will be exploited by those who stand to profit from the reduction of musicians’ wages, regardless of the environment in which they work.

Published by MU Members for Change

MU Members For Change is a broad and diverse coalition of members within the Musicians’ Union. It exists to facilitate communication between members; to aid the delivery of member voice to the Executive Committee; and to promote democracy within the Musicians’ Union. Enquiries should be sent to: mumembersforchange@gmail.com

One thought on “MU Coronavirus Response in Commercial Theatre by Jim Fleeman

  1. An excellent summary of the ‘state of the Union’. I no longer feel represented and they have given away thousands of pounds of my future earnings in order for them to remain in the pockets of producers as well as my lost earnings. Where is the variation agreement for Union staff? Why don’t they negotiate a pay cut for themselves as they seem to be so good at doing it for their members?

    Like

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