Actors in ‘Waitress’ Tour Seek to Join Labor Union

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A group of actors and stage managers employed by a nonunion touring production of the musical “Waitress” is seeking union representation, emboldened by a growing focus on working conditions in the theater business and by the labor movement’s recent successes in other industries.

Actors’ Equity Association, a labor union representing 51,000 performers and stage managers, said it had collected signatures from more than the 30 percent of workers required to seek an election, and that on Tuesday it had submitted an election petition to the National Labor Relations Board, which conducts such elections.

The number of people affected is small — there are 22 actors and stage managers employed by the tour, according to Equity — but the move is significant because it is the first time Equity has tried to organize a nonunion tour since an unsuccessful effort two decades ago to unionize a touring production of “The Music Man.” (The union also sought a boycott of that production.)

Union officials said the “Waitress” tour was an obvious place for an organizing campaign because of an unusually clear comparison: There are currently two touring companies of that musical, one of which is represented by the union and one of which is not. The workers in the nonunion tour are being paid about one-third of what the workers in the union company are making, and have lesser safety protections, Equity said. (The minimum union actor salary is $2,244 per week.)

“We thought it was not right and not fair, so we approached them to see if they were interested in us representing them,” said Stefanie Frey, the union’s director of organizing and mobilization. Frey said that the productions were so similar that some of the nonunion performers have been asked to teach performers in the union production, and that some have moved from the nonunion production to the union production. “It’s an obvious group of people getting exploited,” she said.

Jennifer Ardizzone-West, the chief operating officer at NETworks Presentations, the company that is producing the nonunion “Waitress” tour, declined to offer an immediate reaction, saying, “Until we see the actual filing, it is premature for me to comment.”

Tours are an important, and lucrative, part of the Broadway economy. During the 2018-19 theater season — the last full season before the pandemic — unionized touring shows grossed $1.6 billion and were attended by 18.5 million people, according to the Broadway League. Similar statistics are not readily available for nonunion tours, but Frey said, “The nonunion tour world has grown over the last 15 years.”

Equity is in the process of hiring two additional organizers as it seeks to expand its efforts, according to a union spokesman, David Levy, who noted recent successful efforts to organize some employees at REI, Starbucks and Amazon. The National Labor Relations Board said last week that the number of union election petitions has been increasing dramatically.

Frey said the long pandemic shutdown of theaters had also contributed to a new interest in organizing in the theater industry. “Workers are feeling a little bit more of their power and want to fight for what they deserve in a different way,” she said.