In my short time working as a professional actor in the arts industry, I have experienced a huge variety of working conditions. I have worked for wonderful companies who have gone above and beyond to support their (mostly freelance) workforce, and treat them with integrity and respect. But I have also been exploited - I have worked for little or no pay, without breaks or days-off, and have been subjected to bullying and harassment in the workplace. It was experiences such as these that led me to join a union.
Joining a union and finding my voice
I think it’s fair to say that our generation’s understanding of the trade union movement is limited (thanks to a politically biased curriculum). Even as I signed up and paid my membership fee to Equity, the union for creative practitioners, I knew very little about its purpose or its work. I certainly had no idea that I could be a part of it. Now, I am the Chair of Equity’s Young Members Committee, and although I still have much to learn about the trade union movement and how to work within its structures, I am proud to call myself a union activist.
My bad experiences left me feeling torn in two - on the one hand, I wanted to raise my voice and demand better, but on the other, I was terrified of how that might impact my career. I felt guilty for not speaking up, and yet I was also aware that my voice was small, and that venting my frustrations on social media was not necessarily a meaningful solution.
Deciding to stand for Equity’s Young Members Committee in 2019 was completely liberating. Suddenly, I had a means to channel my frustrations into something constructive, and crucially for me, in an environment where I was able to remain anonymous, and was protected by my union’s name.
Union activism as a force for change
When theatres closed in March 2020, I found myself becoming more and more involved in union work, as a way to turn from despair, and towards positive action. Union Activism was a lifeline for me in what was a very difficult time for the arts Industry. It gave me a sense of hope and a sense of community - even over Zoom.
In November 2020 I was asked to speak on behalf of Equity’s young members in a digital protest, which ultimately resulted in the government releasing the Cultural Recovery Fund. To be a small part of a movement that directly led to government action was hugely rewarding. Although union work can feel slow-moving and bureaucratic, it does bring change - change that is long-lasting and can be built upon by future generations.
Young people can and should lead the way
Young people are activists. We are at the forefront of the movements that initiate change worldwide. Trade unions should be a place for us, yet this is not the case: the average age of an Equity member is 27, and yet most activists are considerably older. I imagine the same can be said for other unions too.
Much can, and should, be done by trade unions to better represent the true demographic of their membership, and to create a space that is safe and welcoming to all. But we, as members, also have the power to change our union - by stepping up and getting involved. Trade unions are nothing more than the sum of their members. They belong to us. And so by pulling up a seat around the table, we can change our unions, and we can change our industries.
Young people deserve to be heard and should be a part of the Trade Union Movement. If you are curious, I urge you to get involved - the only qualification you need is enthusiasm.
Ruby Ablett is an actor and Chair of Equity’s Young Members’ Committee.
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