The new CBA between USA 829 and the Off-Broadway League covers the work of Assistant Designers, and establishes a Membership Candidate program.
Producers must hire USA 829 members under the terms of the contract.
Non-members of USA 829 can join the Membership Candidate program which allows them to work under the terms of the contract before joining.
Member Candidates (MCs) gain access to the USA 829 healthcare plan and can join the union at a substantial discount.
Assistant Designers will be hired as hourly employees of the Theatre and therefore are eligible for overtime, workers' compensation, and unemployment benefits.
Assistant Designers will have formal written agreements for employment with the Theatre and a guaranteed total amount of pay.
Assistant and Principal Designers will have official protections from discrimination and harassment, and clear paths to recourse if needed.
Assistant Designers are not required to perform the work of the production staff; the Theatre is required to engage adequate quality personnel for the proper realization and installation of the designs.
Assistant Designers should never do production work without a separate contract.
Assistant Designers should never pay out-of-pocket for items in the production budget.
Assistant Designers can be reimbursed for pre-approved expenses related to the creation of the design.
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Since the Off-Broadway Assistant Designers Advisory Group (OBADAG) formed, our mission has been to improve working conditions for assistants Off-Broadway. Together, we set out to advocate best practices for assistant designers, reduce the burdens on individuals created by employer practices, and establish fair wages.
OBADAG began by defining the problems facing assistants as we knew them. In the fall of 2019, Local USA 829 held a town hall meeting open to members and non-members alike to gather information about issues in the Off-Broadway assistant designer community. We continued that effort reaching out to and organizing the community to understand individual experiences. Through this process, we established a set of goals widely shared across the workforce: to be paid more, to have a defined list of responsibilities, to have known pay schedules, to improve access to union membership, and to have written agreements. The more assistants we spoke with, the more we learned about the disparate experiences across the industry. It became apparent that before we could improve the rules of the game, we would need to make sure we built a level playing field, open to all.
From the outset, we felt strongly that any solutions which lift up only some assistant designers are not, in fact, solutions at all. A recommendation that works for a 15-year veteran assistant, but does not also benefit an individual working on their first show out of school cannot be the correct approach, nor does any improvement that only serves union members. This was further reinforced by our data collection project which identified 891 individuals that had worked as assistant designers at Off-Broadway League theaters between 2015 and 2020. We learned that fewer than half of them had more than one production credit to their name, and 65% of them are not union members. If we are to improve the working conditions for assistants Off-Broadway, we must do so in a comprehensive way.
This outreach, data collection, and discussion led to the formation of our list of priorities, the first of which is the inclusion of assistant designers in the Off-Broadway League collectively bargained agreement. This would recognize assistants not only as employees of the theater, but as whole and complete human beings who deserve wages for labor, contracts for employment, and respect equal to designers, directors, actors, crew members, and stage managers.
After we identified our priorities, we began reaching out to those assistants in the workforce from the previous five years and spent hours on the phone with them one-on-one. We explained the list of priorities and how we thought we could improve our workplaces once they reopened. We listened to their concerns, shared our thinking, and educated each other about the tools at our disposal. In the end, we were pleased to discover that over 90% of individuals contacted were in support of the priorities.
The recently negotiated revision to the Off-Broadway CBA addresses a majority of the top priorities established by OBADAG. It ensures that assistants are hired directly, paid fairly, and have a voice with their employer. By recognizing assistants as employees of the theater they automatically receive protections commonly afforded to other workers. It also empowers USA 829 to directly help assistants who are not yet members of the union by establishing the Membership Candidate program which dramatically lowers the financial and logistical barriers to joining the union by providing a work-to-join path, rather than the existing pay-to-play path. Additionally, by affirming that it is the producer who employs the assistant, and not the designer, the opportunity for theaters to use principal designers as a tool to exploit assistant labor for a minimal fee will be curtailed. Principal designers will also be relieved of the pressure to provide financial kickbacks to productions through supplementing low assistant designer pay out of their own pockets.
The willpower of the union to make such proposals, the receptiveness of the Off-Broadway League to these suggestions, and the progress ultimately made in the negotiations would not have been possible without the work of the Black Lives Matter movement. We are in the midst of a reckoning in which we grapple with our complicity in upholding systems of white supremacy despite outwardly progressive agendas. For too long the labor movement has benefited from the labor and lives of BIPOC individuals while failing to give them recognition or guarantee their safety. We will do better. We acknowledge the lack of diversity and equity among assistants and recognize that in the near term, the majority of the beneficiaries of this CBA are white. It is our hope that by improving wages and working conditions, we will begin to dismantle the barriers that have kept too many BIPOC artists from pursuing careers in the NYC theater. This is only a first step.