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Hywel Morgan, Lizzie Cooper and Joe Richardson 
Job title
West End theatre workers
When the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, West End theatres were hit hard. They had to close immediately. Getting back to business as usual was a slow process for the performers and professionals involved. And getting back to fair pay took even longer. 

Equity – the trade union for performing arts and entertainment – currently represents around 900 people working in West End theatres, with over 80% union membership density. Every 3 to 5 years the union negotiates with the Society of London Theatres (SOLT) on pay and conditions. 

When the pandemic hit, Equity and SOLT agreed a special ‘variation agreement’. This was a variation to their existing industrial agreement and was made to enable some shows to reopen. Many closed. 

The terms were tough. Some shows went down from 8 a week to 5, and workers were only paid per show. Performers and staff also lost their Sunday payments for working in shows on Sundays. 

But the idea was that this temporary agreement would minimise the damage of Covid-19, help keep the West End alive and begin to rebuild capital to get back to normal. And the agreement came with the promise to build back better when the threat of the pandemic had passed. 

While the variation agreement was in place, life was difficult for West End performers and professionals. Many were taking on second and even third jobs to make ends meet. And then the cost-of-living crisis began to bite. 

The variation agreement was to be held in place until box offices had returned to their pre-pandemic levels. The first review was very close to those levels, but affected by the Omicron variant, so that meant the variation agreement carried on for another 6 months – leaving workers even worse off. 

The variation agreement finally fell away in October 2022. Workers got an 7.89% pay rise and Sunday payments were immediately reinstated. It was then time for Equity to negotiate their next agreement with SOLT. 

We caught up with three of the “deps” (deputies – who are union reps) involved in this campaign – Hywel Morgan, Lizzie Cooper and Joe Richardson. 

A mountain to climb 

Hywel said: “When we started to negotiate our new deal with SOLT, it felt like we had a mountain to climb. We had to be audacious and ambitious because we knew only a real cost-of-living pay rise would be enough for our members. 

“There was a real strength of feeling in our membership that we deserved nothing less. And there was an appetite for industrial action if we didn’t build back better, as had been pledged. 

“There’s a misconception about West End theatre that everyone is well paid. We’ve seen ticket prices increase exponentially in recent times – but the same can’t be said about wages. 

“The first action the negotiating committee took was to carry out an audit of what our members were earning, to get a proper, informed snapshot of where we were at. We had hundreds of responses. And the results were shocking – and gave us a very strong basis to say that our members were underpaid. 

“Most of the people who replied were paid between £650-750 a week. And that’s before your tax, National Insurance and agents' fees.” 

Work, rest and pay 

Joe told us: “From the pay audit, it was clear we had a mandate to build our claim around three areas – work, rest and pay. 

“Many West End performers and stage management can’t afford to live in London, but you only get a travel or relocation allowance for 13 weeks if you live 60 miles from Charing Cross station, and most shows are on a year’s contract. 

“We needed more rest and more holiday. You work 6 days a week, but you only get the same holiday as if you were working 5 days a week. We wanted equal.  

“Also, we needed more incapacity or sick pay. The current entitlement is you’re paid one month per year, but when you’re doing a vocally or physically demanding job, that allowance can disappear very quickly. 

“With pay, we knew we needed to get money into people’s pockets immediately. Everyone was struggling.” 

Lucky to be on the West End 

Lizzie said: “Swings - performers who can ‘swing in’ to replace up 4 performers at a moment's notice – and understudies keep shows alive and running. But they tend to be paid the minimum levels negotiated by Equity and SOLT. 

“There’s an idea that you’re lucky to be part of the West End cache, so you should be happy with the minimum pay. Producers tend to think that the minimum agreed level is a ceiling and not a floor, and they rely on our loyalty and love for this industry. 

“But the pay just isn’t enough. 

“Together with union staff, our negotiating committee set our pay claim at 17%. And this time we wanted a 2-year deal, not the longer agreements like we’d had before. 

“A 2-year deal gave us the chance to focus on a minimal number of topics and get them sorted. Plus, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 2 years, and we didn’t want our members short-changed.” 

equity poster

Preparing for negotiations 

Hywel said: “Before we walked into the room, we had worked really hard to get photos of every cast from the 35 theatres in the West End holding up signs saying #StandUpFor17 and we flooded social media.” 

Lizzie added: “We prepared for this like gearing up for a football match. We had our game plan, we had rehearsed our moves, and we were ready with stories of case studies that spoke to every element of our claim.” 

Joe said: “The engagement we had from the West End was inspiring. At the time I was in a West End musical, and casts congregated between shows, taking to the streets to have a rally between matinee and evening performances. 

“The traction on social media made it clear to SOLT how engaged people were with the campaign and that they weren’t indifferent to getting better pay and conditions.” 

The talks begin 

Hywel said: “Historically, our negotiations have always taken place at SOLT head offices on Rose Street, but for the first time this year they came to Equity’s HQ at Guild House. That change set the scene and showed that we meant business. 

“The opening offer from SOLT was far too low, but they tried to present it as a generous offer. Really pressured discussions followed. But we stayed strong as we knew the membership were behind us.” 

Joe explained: “We read out the circumstances of so many members to get the human side across – like why the lack of sick pay mattered, as we had people performing while they were still injured. I felt like I was sat in the room with all those people and voices behind me.” 

Hywel added: “In the past we’ve had maybe 3 meetings to negotiate a pay claim, and at the third meeting we’ve agreed an offer that we would recommend to our members. 

“But this time we refused to recommend the offer – it was too low and wasn’t building back better. I think this was when SOLT started to get worried. We weren’t following the usual script and they were in uncharted territory. 

“We finally agreed a deal in session 5. It wasn’t everything we wanted but we knew it was the best we were going to get, and we had pushed back as hard as we could. It worked out at 16.7% across 24 months for the lowest paid and would be backdated to the start of the tax year. 

“We felt we could recommend this final deal to members, and they overwhelmingly voted to accept it – 94% voted for it on an 80% turnout.” 

A victory for assistant stage managers 

Lizzie said: “There’s three levels of stage management – a stage manager, a deputy and an assistant. It’s expected that when you start your career as an assistant, you’ll invariably act up to cover a deputy. You’d be contractually obliged to – but this hasn’t historically been reflected in pay. 

“So, part of our claim was to seek a flat rate of pay for anyone covering a role, to acknowledge the skills and work that goes into this.” 

Hywel said: “There is a real paucity of stage managers now as so many people have left the theatres post-pandemic. They might be working in a shop, but they realise they have such a better quality of life. 

“The West End is made up of people who mix and match and move between theatres just to keep the shows going. We all need to be valued or we won’t have enough people to run the shows.” 

“Formidable, fearless and feisty” 

Hywel commented that one of the best developments from the negotiations was that more deps are now ready to make a stand. He said: “This was a real team effort. 

“The negotiating team of 2 stage managers and 8 performers were formidable, fearless and feisty.  They were so engaged – and hopefully there’ll be a continuity for future negotiations as many are standing for election to our industrial committees. 

“We will be back in the room in 2 years to negotiate again. And the great thing is that Equity is stronger now in the theatres than I’ve seen it in a decade. Watch out! 

“Those pro-rated weeks of shows would have been a lot easier to swallow if we’d shared in the gains of the theatre – but we had only shared in the pain. Going forwards it’s time for us to share in the gains.” 

The West End Negotiating party members were: 

Lizzie Cooper – Stage Management 
Sarah de La Bedoyere – Les Mis 
Rebecca Louis – Chair, West End Deputies 
Rhidian Marc – Wicked 
Viv Parry – Cabaret 
Joe Richardson – Tina 
Anthony Hewitt – Pretty Woman 
David Mara – Harry Potter 
Natasha Leaver – Hamilton  
Hywel Morgan – Stage Industrial Committee 
Woody Woodcock – Stage Management 

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