Back in 1984, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists, and Allied Crafts (IATSE) came to fellow sound designer Jack Shearing and me to establish representation for sound designers working on Broadway and nationally.
The problem from there was establishing collective bargaining agreements with various producers, and it took us a couple of years to even begin negotiations with The Broadway League.
We eventually established a simple collective bargaining agreement that covered minimum fees, additional weekly compensation, and certain benefits plans. It wasn’t the greatest agreement, but it was better than nothing and gave us the validity of being represented by a collective bargaining unit. We were never strong enough to implement additional terms on that agreement.
In 1992, Local One approached me about merging with Local 922, so that Local One would have jurisdiction over sound designers on Broadway. This changed the arrangement a bit because it meant that Local 922, with its national reach, would have to cede jurisdiction of sound designers in regional theatres since Local One would only have representation on Broadway or on first class national tours. When United Scenic Artists became IATSE Local USA 829 in 1999, it became a shared jurisdiction, and USA 829 started to represent designers working regionally, but Local One maintained representation on Broadway. Sound design was added to the USA/LORT Agreement in 2002.
Local One attempted to improve the terms of our agreement with The League, but we really only had one renewal of terms slightly better than the original late 1980s contract. We encouraged Local One to come to better negotiations with The League, but that never seemed to be at the forefront of the League’s agenda.
So sound designers still weren’t properly represented, and Local One officers eventually agreed and made overtures to cede jurisdiction to USA 829—a cooperative venture, really—starting in November last year. IATSE’s international executive board approved the transfer of representation, effective July 2011.
Sound designer Jeremy Lee has been a member of USA 829 for 10 years and is the sound design trustee on its Eastern Regional Board. "In the near term, it can be a bit confusing to members—where do benefit contributions go, to whom do I pay dues—but this transitional period is going to be very short," says Lee. "In the long term, this is beneficial to everyone. Producers will have one union to negotiate with for all designers. USA 829 has represented sound designers in LORT regionally for years and has represented all other designers for almost 100 years. The next step, however, because there is an existing contract between Local One and the Broadway producers, is to have The League now recognize the jurisdiction of USA 829 as the representative of sound designers, so we are still in transition, and we are still getting the word out."
Once USA 829 becomes the bargaining agent, the next step is to reopen contract negotiations and try to improve the wages and working conditions. There is a strong group of designers who have volunteered to be a part of this process. The existing Local One contract has minimum terms that are not realistic. Lighting design minimums, for example, are higher. In fact, Lee calls sound design rates "very, very low. We would always negotiate far above that, and it was simply a baseline. What the contract turns into right now, I just don’t know, but talks are ongoing between USA 829 and The League."
Raising awareness of the transition is important now. "All Local One sound designers are essentially welcome to add a USA 829 membership, but it’s really an individual choice," adds Lee. "Some designers got into Local One as sound design members but might be mixing or working as a stagehand, and they may not benefit hugely from a second membership. Those who are primarily designers and are in Local One are encouraged to join USA 829."
The bottom line is that we’ll be represented by a Local that has better knowledge and past practice of representing designers in the theatre, which Local One just didn’t have. It basically represents stagehands, and it does a fine job at it, but design is something that, in its concept, is different from the work of crews. As Lee reminds us, "It’s good to be part of shaping your future."
Abe Jacob, the "godfather" of theatre sound design, started mixing for 1960s legends like Jimi Hendrix, and his long list of Broadway credits includes Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line, Cats, and Evita. He is the in-house sound guru at the David H. Koch Theatre for New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center.