Equity in Crisis … You Couldn’t Make It Up

In a time of so many #YCMIU moments this one really gets me…

My trade union Equity has recently launched a campaign to try to force the Tory Government to re-negotiate with the EU on visa requirements for actors to work in Europe.

All well and good. My last television acting job before lockdown was on a new Netflix series Shadow and Bone, filming in Budapest. It was only for three days but to do that very same job now, post Brexit, I would first need to secure a Hungarian residence permit!

But here comes the real #YCMIU…

The new Equity General Secretary Paul W. Fleming was a very active Vote Leave campaigner FOR Brexit. So he is now urging members to campaign for an exception to the Brexit regulations he actively campaigned for.

Fleming first came to my attention last December when I started seeing Facebook posts by Scottish Equity members angry about his decision to force compulsory redundancy on Lorne Boswell, well loved and respected Scottish Organiser of some thirty two years standing.

Members were outraged at this happening at all – for a Trade Union to resort to compulsory redundancy in the first instance should be anathema and is a gift to employers in negotiations- but to come in the middle of a pandemic, just weeks before Christmas whilst the furlough scheme was still in place made it impossible to understand.

Coupled with Fleming’s decision to get rid of the long established relationship between the Scottish Office and Northern Irish members, and replace it with “direct rule” of N.I. affairs from London by him personally meant that many like myself got involved.

This was all supposedly because the union was suddenly in dire financial peril, despite it being happy to use £1M of its £14M reserves to help members blighted by the pandemic just before Fleming took up post. Scottish and N.I. members reckoned it was much more to do with Lorne’s pro-European stance and opposition to Fleming’s election.

A brilliant social media and press campaign was established with the hashtag #EquitySaveOurStaff and intense activity took place on Twitter and Facebook. A petition was set up, reaching over 3000 signatures, and many members made videos expressing their concerns.

Scottish and Northern Irish members open meetings, with Fleming and Equity President Maureen Beattie OBE, took place in early January and I think it’s very fair to say that no members at all, bar one, showed any support for Fleming’s actions and indeed, all were further resolved to step up the campaign against the proposals.

But we are now into a new phase of the campaign as, after seven weeks of negotiation with Lorne’s Unite union representative, redundancy terms were agreed. The statement put out by Equity on this ludicrously claimed that it was voluntary redundancy and Fleming couldn’t even bring himself (or Equity) to thank Lorne for 32 years service.

Every day seems to bring fresh twists and revelations. He put out another statement yesterday – 11 February – condemning #EquitySaveOurStaff for bringing the union into disrepute when any Trade Union leader worth their salt would have been trying to calm things down and look for reconciliation. Meanwhile Kirstin Maclean, one of the leading lights of our campaign was able to see exactly how vilified she has been by submitting a Subject Access Request ( a personal form of Freedom of Information request ) to Guild House, the Equity HQ. This showed just how nasty discussions have been and resemble nothing so much as the snide tittle-tattle exposed amongst Labour Party staff about Diane Abbott and co. I’m now awaiting my SAR results too…

What has been truly baffling is the deafening silence on it all and total lack of solidarity shown to the devolved nations members by the membership in England. Only the three council members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland opposed his package of redundancies. I’ve surmised that perhaps English members and councillors bought Fleming’s first line of attack that the 5% of membership in Scotland received 15% of the union resources… It’s the familiar subsidy junkeys line much loved by right wing Brit press. Apart from the fact that the Scottish Office also dealt with Northern Ireland, Fleming clearly has no understanding of the geography of Scotland or what work is involved with devolved parliaments.

There is something about all this that sharply reflects the bigger political picture of these islands at this moment in time and hopefully that will be explored by better writers than me as there are many lessons to be learnt.

Where this is leading, it’s still hard to tell. Today, 12 February, five members of the Scottish Committee have resigned in response to Fleming’s statement and his letter late last night to Committee member Sarah McCardie telling them categorically to shut up with their questions, it’s over (and then having the cheek to finish with “In solidarity, PWF”). Again #YCMIU.

I’ll see about posting those resignation letters in the comments below this as they all tell such a tale of spirit and solidarity in a union that all were once proud to serve. Now we somehow either manage to oust him on a vote of no confidence for his truly bringing the union into disrepute or we start our own Scottish trade union. We could just mibbe make that up…

Image credit: The Stage

Comments (17)

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  1. Isobel Hunter says:

    Not sure why any of this is surprising. The organisation is just too big and the people at the head of any big organisation tend to have little if any regard for members. See themselves as far above the plebs and not to be questioned. Other Trade Unions are much the same often with agendas which are not in the interests of members. Maybe time to cut your losses and start again?

  2. Iain Robertson says:

    Well said Tam.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    Fleming sounds like a right DUPer.

  4. Graham Ennis says:

    absolutely this shows the4 need for a Scottish artists, writers and actors union. Put them all under one roof for mutual support.
    Also get all Scottish members to vote to sieze 5% of the reserve fund, as its their cash, and also any leases, offices, etc. If there is a scopttish office, seize it. occupy.
    This is rank and disgusting discrimination against the Celtic memebership of Equity.
    Go on! Dop it!!

    1. Wul says:

      Scottish Artists Union here: https://www.artistsunion.scot/everything_about_sau

      It was set up with visual artists in mind, rather than performing arts. Maybe they would offer advice to any nascent Scottish Actors Union though?

      Could a Scottish Actors Union affiliate with a European actors body to find a solution to the Brexit-related unemployment caused in part by Equity’s new boss? For a union leader he seems awfy keen on unemployment.

  5. Bry says:

    Superb outline of the shenanigans of the right wing in the , ahem, labour movement . This tale is familiar: the outcome relies on an inactive membership and bullying leadership. Your voice here shows the kind of activity needed to challenge these sellouts .

    1. Tom Freeman says:

      Interesting you should make that comparison, Fleming is also an elected Labour councillor

  6. Tam Dean Burn says:

    To Paul Fleming General Secretary.

    Dear Paul,

    Here is my letter of resignation from the Scottish Committee forthwith.

    I have been a member of Equity since 1982 when I excitedly received my provisional working for The Natural Theatre in Bath and embarking on a gruelling eight month tour of England with some European touring thrown in. Loading vans in the dark with horizontal rain in Luton, Rotherham and Hartlipool is something yourself and your fellow Oxford PPE graduate Louise “Feck” McMullan will not have experienced but many of your members will have and the reason that the Union is so important to them.

    Your wish to centralise Equity in the south and run it like New Labour at the expense of the members in the Nations is not something I wish to be part of. You do have the wonderful John Barclay & Matt Hood still there and they are good at what they do but I will not miss Mr Spences` abrasive personality.

    I think I have been on the Scottish Committee since 2003 and up until December 2020 it has been a privilege to serve on it. Until you Paul changed everything.

    I had the privilege of performing at the Scottish Parliament with Lorne Boswell & your last president Malcolm Sinclair and represent Equity again at an Parilamentary Arts meeting in the Scottish Parilament and attended many Nations meetings and performed at the European FIA Conference cabaret in Edinburgh. I enjoyed the grassroots involvement and relayed concerns to the Scottish Committee some of which were acted on by motions at the ARC. My proudest one being the Child protection motion to make each Theatre in the UK display their Child protection policy. That is still union policy today.

    Compulsory redundancy is something no trade union should embark on especially when a furlough scheme is still in existence but you are doing this for ideological political reasons not for the best interests of the Union in the Nations where we disagree with you most strongly.

    You will preside over the break up and fragmentation of this once great Union.

    That will be your legacy.

    With great sadness,

    John A Sampson.



    1. Tam Dean Burn says:

      To Paul Fleming General Secretary of Equity

      Dear Paul,

      Please accept this email as my formal resignation from the Scottish National Committee with immediate effect.

      I concur with and fully support all the reasons given by my comrades today in their own resignations. After your response to the SNC’s statement on the conclusion of the redundancy in the Glasgow Office our position is simply untenable. We effectively received a smack on the nose by a rolled up newspaper and were ordered back into our basket. A committee with no voice is impotent. A committee with its master’s voice is sinister.

      Intolerance of dissent is weakness, not strength.

      Over the last few months certain things have struck me. You have characterised our campaign to save our Organiser as if conducted by a venal and thought-controlled army of trolls when in fact your restructuring move ignited a flame of disparate, individual, passionate, uncoordinated activism. I am amazed how shaken you all appear to have been by it.

      I would like to say here that no one from the SNC condemned the nasty letter because we had absolutely no idea it existed. As for the horrid language you say you’ve been assaulted by I absolutely condemn that; although in my own defence I did not know a lot of that existed either. The only language I have been offended by is when one of your staunchest supporters called you the C-word not once but twice in the same tweet. In the interests of balance perhaps you ought to condemn that.

      I have also been amazed how your supporters seem to be utterly obsessed by Equity and I have to confess that I don’t understand it. That being so it is best I leave you all to it.

      Myself and my comrades are committed Scottish socialist trade unionists. And working in that tradition we have no choice but to disagree, oppose and resign.

      Yours sincerely,

      Julie Coombe

  7. Tam Dean Burn says:

    Hi Paul & all,

    Please accept this as my formal resignation from The Equity Scottish National Committee.

    Personally, I have turned to Equity for support twice in my career spanning over 20 years. The first time when I was living & working in London in 2003 over a bullying dispute in my cast – Equity were utterly hopeless & basically told me to suck it up, bullying was part of this industry & I’d better toughen up. I stopped my membership with immediate effect until 2017 when I turned to Lorne Boswell for advice over a dispute with a theatre company in Scotland – Lorne persuaded me to re-join Equity in Scotland promising support & solidarity. Afterall – that is what a Union should represent. My personal feelings along with the feelings of the Scottish National Committee regarding the redundancy of Lorne Boswell cannot have been made clearer.

    When I was elected on to the Scottish National Committee – I honestly thought I could proudly represent members & campaign on their behalf. I believe I am a strong supporter of justice & fairness. It has been my honour to listen, support, encourage & enlist members in Scotland since being elected. I cannot in clear conscience defend the actions & behaviours of Equity UK any longer. I am at a loss.

    In the past 4 months, during a global pandemic when our industry is on its knees – I have spent hours respectfully fighting alongside The Scottish National Committee to be heard within my member led Union. As you said in your response to me this last night – so many things are “not within the purview” of the SNC. We are simply there to tick a box. We have no real purpose, influence, or place.

    With all due respect – if our General Secretary can’t answer questions & a statement unanimously presented by a Committee within the Union & if all official complaints sent into Equity are rejected by Steven Spence – the internal structure of Equity & its practise is questionable & self-serving.

    I believe in people, from every nation in the UK. I know all National Committees are feeling frustrated. I believe Equity, under your leadership is choosing a dangerous path & being non inclusive. I believe the function of The Scottish National Committee is non-existent. We do not have a voice – Equity is not listening & we are being told to get back into our box. Life is too short & precious to bang my head against this brick wall. I now understand why the majority of Equity Members don’t vote.

    Between all of the above & seeing/ hearing various “leaks” from various sources – I have no option but to express my anger, distrust & disappointment at the conduct of this Union – which feels absolutely not member led. I simply cannot support you or your actions any longer.

    Deflated & disappointed,

    Sarah McCardie

    1. Tam Dean Burn says:

      To Paul Fleming – General Secretary of Equity

      Please accept this email as my resignation from Equity’s Scottish National Committee with immediate effect.

      It has been an honour to serve on this committee for eight years. I have recruited members, campaigned against bullying, championed our rights for parental leave, spoken at several conferences and worn my membership with pride.

      But the past few months have been quite frankly unbearable. We have been repeatedly blocked, patronised and disrespected by you, by members of your Secretariat and the President and Vice Presidents. After the shocking letter that you sent to us last night via Sarah McCardie, I believe that continuing to serve on this committee would, for me, be an unthinkable act of self-harm and submission to your autocratic style of leadership.

      We have now clearly received the message that in your mind, the only good activism is activism that promotes your party line.

      Your conduct, and that of your supporters, yesterday was deplorable. Collectively, you harassed #ESOS campaigners into making a public statement condoning hateful statements, without confronting those who allegedly made them, and without showing proof of those statements. At the very same time, you have ACTUAL PROOF of hate speech that was used about me, probably by recipients of this email, and you have shown no remorse, taken no responsibility, and done nothing to condemn it. How can I serve under a General Secretary who is such a rank hypocrite and who has such contempt, no, hatred, for me personally? I would love to know why you think some offensive language is wrong and some is acceptable. But recent experience tells me that I’ll never get a straight answer. Doublespeak is now the official language of Equity and the only choice we have is to like it or lump it.

      You have absolutely and deliberately misinterpreted the nature of our efforts to save our Organiser’s job. You have avoided the difficult questions and focussed the debate on a few outlying nasty comments, while deliberately ignoring other nasty comments made by your own staff and supporters.

      I don’t say this lightly, but shame on you. And shame your team of enablers in the secretariat and council.

      You have dragged Equity into disrepute within only a few short months. The pride I have felt, the love for this union, the willingness to defend it is no more. Make no mistake – there are hundreds who feel the same way and the blame for this lies squarely at your door.

      I apologise sincerely to the members I represent in Scotland for not completing my term on the committee. I give them my promise that I will continue to fight for the rights of all workers in the performing arts in this nation – but never again under the sullied banner of ‘Equity’.

      Yours sincerely

      Kirstin McLean

      1. Tam Dean Burn says:

        Dear General Secretary,

        I have been a proud member of Equity since 1997 and served on the Scottish National Committee since 2017. Our meetings were vibrant, constructive, informative and always interesting. There was a great spirit amongst us, we complimented each other well & were proud to call each other friends as well as colleagues. Most meetings lasted around two hours.

        In the past few months all that has changed.

        Our last Zoom meeting lasted less than 40 minutes. With our President & Vice-President in attendance, we sat in stony silence; chastened school children on detention under surveillance, as the agenda was dryly read out to a gallery of glum, disenfranchised faces – a dystopian opening credits of The Muppets – praying for the meeting to end so we could press the ‘Leave’ button and escape the toxic atmosphere and get back to the relative joy of lockdown.

        I believe this is down to you, General Secretary, and the way you, your staff and elected officials have presided over your staff restructuring proposals these last few months.

        When you were elected last summer, I was quite prepared to back you and give my full support. I watched and read your interviews. I liked the cut of your jib. However, I now see many of your manifesto pledges and recent statements for the empty, meaningless rhetoric it is. Your use of deliberately vague, ambiguous language means you can say one thing and do another, wriggling off the hook any time you’re challenged. The political spin & Orwellian double-speak turning the union into some slick, corporate machine seems relentless.

        I was not opposed to change. As a thrifty, freelance Scot I understood the need for prudence. But, as your final proposals revealed, this was never about saving money. This was an orchestrated attempt to oust a popular, long-serving member of staff to suit your own ends. Despite emphasising the disastrous financial peril the union is facing, your savings have been reduced and, at the eleventh hour, you mysteriously found some money down the back of the sofa in Guild House to pay for new staff in Northern Ireland which negates the saving of the Glasgow redundancy. Wherever possible jobs have not been ‘safeguarded’.

        Let’s not kid ourselves; this was ‘Operation Remove Lorne at all Costs’

        This should come as no surprise. At our first meeting, when asked how we convince the Scottish membership of your proposals, your answer was ‘You might not agree with me but I’m not an a***hole.’ You are a highly-paid Trade Union Official and that was the best line you could come up with. You told us you weren’t ‘Boris Johnson or Ted Heath’ but it was another politician deeply unpopular in Scotland that you emulated; and like Maggie Thatcher, you weren’t for turning.

        Another common tactic favoured by the Conservatives – the ‘Dead Cat’ strategy- is now being deployed as Equity scream ‘Dead Cat!” to distract from the real issues. Our campaign to save Lorne’s job is now being portrayed as some kind of vile, bullying and harassing crusade. Mistakes may have been made but my conscience is clear. I campaigned from the heart against what I believed to be a grave injustice, to save a man’s job and to call out the hypocrisies of a trade union I was once proud to promote and defend at every turn.

        I began this campaign hoping we could keep this union together but the longer it went on I began to question if this is a union I want to be part of at all. A union that enforces redundancies ( including compulsory) at Christmas whilst the furlough scheme is in place. A union that spent seven weeks desperately trying to force a staff member out the door. A union that withholds legal advice and skewed metrics from its members. A union that denies its committees permission to release official statements to the members it was elected to serve. I could go on.

        Your latest email putting the Scottish Commitee back in its box and your refusal to answer the very simplest of questions from us speaks volumes and makes a mockery of the ‘open and transparent’ union you are trying to propagate.
        You told us you would be pragmatic, that you’d listen and that you wouldn’t let us down. You did none of these things.

        I would, however, like to offer my genuine thanks to you. Due to this campaign, we have created new bonds and cemented many friendships and relationships across the creative communities in Scotland, Northern Ireland & Wales. You have galvanised us like never before.

        We have never been further apart, but we are closer now than ever.

        With deep regret, please accept this email as my resignation from the Scottish National Commitee with immediate effect.


        Andy Clark

  8. Greg Powrie says:

    Eloquently put Tam. I have never felt such a disconnect with our profession as I do now. A life I’d hoped would largely be a level playing field when it came to politics, gender, sexual orientation, race etc has been slowly but surely denigrated by those to whom we look for leadership. Of course the irony may prove to be that we will pull together, united in adversity, and turn this horrible state of affairs around. I hope so.

  9. Sandra McNeeley says:

    Only good (people) can come out of this. Well said Tam x

  10. Floradh Laura Chamshròn-Leòdhais says:

    What makes this all even more shocking is that the union has repeatedly refused to provide financial information, something which it is legally bound to do. The Scottish Committee asked a series of questions and requested this financial info as have many members and have been told they don’t have the right to the info or a response, the phrase not ‘within the purview’ was used. Complaints have been dealt with by a member of staff who has a conflict of interest, and we’ve been told that this member of staff’s interpretation of the rules is correct, not the members rights under the rules. On the very day that email evidence came to light that Equity had internally slandered Kirstin McLean, Equity proceeded to slander the Scottish members in an Equity statement and in The Stage, stating that those of us involved in the campaign have sent ‘poison pen letters’ to the home of a staff member and we should have condemned this behaviour. Not a single person I know knew anything of the existence of such a thing – and to date no one has seen evidence that this supposed letter (letters?) even exist and even then, there is no evidence it was from anyone in Scotland. There is not even circumstantial evidence given that members have no access to addresses of members of staff, only staff members do. As another put it, if Equity has a data breach with personal information then 50k members data is at risk and under GDPR this is very serious indeed. The lack of responsibility to the members who pay their (very high) wages is staggering.

  11. Michael Daviot says:

    Fine piece, Tam. A powerful expression of how all Scottish members feel. EquityUK has become as pernicious to the commonweal of its Scottish family as the Westminster government has long been to Scotland itself. The union, and all it stands for, is being destroyed from within, ‘like a weevil in a biscuit’, by Paul Fleming, who has maliciously turned upon the very people he is supposed to support and protect. I agree that if he cannot be ousted, the healthiest and most hopeful way forward would seem to lie in the formation of a Scottish Actors Union.

  12. Heron Stewart says:

    Absolute disgrace the way they treated Lorne

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