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Williams Tries Equity Dodge

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Seeking to avoid sanctions by the performers' unions, actor Barry Williams has employed a little-known maneuver to star in a non-Equity tour of "The Sound of Music." However, he may have failed to make the maneuver in time.

The tour will use all non-union talent except for Williams, who is a member of Actors' Equity, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA). As Back Stage reported earlier (Sept. 22, "Greg Brady, Scab?"), Williams stepped in after Equity's threats of reprisals successfully persuaded another actor, Corbin Bernsen, to bow out of the tour. The penalties for full Equity members who work on such projects range from fines to expulsion from the union.

Although Equity and the tour producers, Maryland-based Troika Entertainment, had tried to negotiate terms, they failed to reach an agreement over payments. Equity minimum scale is $1,180 per week, plus $700 weekly per diem; Troika is paying about a third of that and is not contributing pension and welfare benefits that would be required on an Equity tour.

In a statement faxed to Back Stage, Jennifer Howey of Troika pointed out that "Actors' Equity has numerous performer contracts tailored to different situations, many of which sanction salaries well below the minimums paid on this production." Further, she wrote, "the union has refused to differentiate between a 30-week tour such as ours and the 15-year runs of the mega-musicals that have recouped their investment many times over. This show has a very large cast and an expensive physical production. Although we have asked repeatedly, the union has refused to grant meaningful concessions.

"The union has made it impossible to recoup the show's investment or employ their membership. Conse-quently, the show moves forward without the involvement of Actors' Equity."

But not quite. It will move forward with Williams—the former Greg, the eldest son, on the sitcom "The Brady Bunch"—playing the scion of the von Trapp bunch.

What Is 'Financial Core?'

Already apprised that Equity forbids members working in non-union productions, Williams sent a letter last Wed., Sept. 27 to declare "financial core" worker status.

"Financial core" is a worker classification that came into being in 1998, when, according to Louis C. Rabaut of the Warner Norcross & Judd law firm, "The Supreme Court ruled that an employee could object to the use of his [or her] dues money for any purpose other than those related to collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance processing. These are so-called 'financial core activities.' This means that the employee is not required to pay for non-core activities, such as political activities.

"If an employee elects to pay only for financial core activities, the union can compel the employee to resign from the union. However, the employee remains fully covered by the collective bargaining agreement, and the union must continue to represent that employee with respect to such matters as grievance processing."

There are a few other differences for financial core members: they cannot vote in union elections, do not get amenities like union newspapers or credit union membership, and are not subject to union fines or discipline for violation of a union's internal rules.

As Rabaut noted on the Warner Norcross & Judd Internet website, the primary effect of the ruling is likely to be conservative groups' increasing attempts to urge union members (not necessarily, and presumably not principally, performers) to declare themselves financial core members to "limit the political power of organized labor." It was not the court's stated objective to allow workers to undermine their unions' policies, but to allow workers to refuse to fund union activities that are contrary to their personal beliefs.

Whatever its original rationale, some non-union producers (chiefly of films) have seized on the new category as a way of getting union actors to perform in their projects. A website for Pirromount [sic] Films suggests actors decide, "Do you want to vote for the next SAG president or increase your opportunities to work more steadily? Tough decision. Sure, non-union films mostly don't pay anywhere near the SAG day rates, but you're playing Bingo with more cards now. The payoff may not be as big, but the payoff will be steady and the bonus is that you can still take those high-paying SAG gigs when they come along. You're not giving up much, you're just enhancing what you have. Many SAG actors have done it (it's just a well-kept secret), Charlton Heston endorses it, and it's your legal right to enact it."

'Financial Core' = Resigned

Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg notified Williams in a letter the following day that "we treat all declarations of 'financial core' status as resignations" and that "we have reason to believe that prior to the date of this resignation, you agreed to work in the non-union tour of 'The Sound of Music,' in direct contravention of Equity's constitution and by-laws.

"This action makes you eligible for disciplinary charges by Actors' Equity Association, and so I shall commence filing such charges."

That's not all: citing reciprocal policies of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, Eisenberg wrote, "I am requesting that the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists institute similar disciplinary proceedings against you." He sent copies of his correspondence to SAG President William Daniels, AFTRA President Shelby Scott, and various other union officeholders.

"The Sound of Music" is scheduled to open Oct. 27 in Fort Meyers, FL, and will continue on to at least 18 other cities.

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