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Union man – Ian McGarry and Equity

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As former general secretary Ian McGarry retires after 30 years at Equity, he tells Jeremy Austin how preparing the union for a digital future was his biggest battle

Ian McGarry’s 30 years at Equity cover arguably the most challenging period in the organisation’s 76-year history.

In the seventies, unions enjoyed the closed shop and unparalleled power in the workplace. In the eighties, the Thatcher government plunged the country into recession with one hand and stripped away the power of the trade unions to defend members against swingeing economic cuts with the other.

Those organisations that survived – Equity among them – had to undergo radical structural changes in order to do so. In the nineties and the 21st century, rapid technological changes in broadcasting media have stretched to breaking points agreements forged when McGarry, as assistant general secretary, oversaw what was known, rather quaintly, as the mechanical media department.

Now a chapter in Equity’s grand history is over. McGarry, a week into retirement, is poring over the framed declarations of intent and lists of original members of the union that hang on the wall of the ground floor conference room at Guild House.

He seems in awe of the names – Gielgud, Olivier – as if he has never seen them before or as if his being part of such an historic organisation never ceases to amaze him.

He reflects on the main challenge that he has had to face, along with his team of officials and the elected council, in enabling a body so proud of its past to forge its future in a modern, digital world.

“The way that Equity has managed that change is very creditable because it isn’t easy to get actors to adapt and accept different uses of their material and to make sure they get properly paid for it. It’s been quite a struggle,” he says.

“But I think that, in the period before I was general secretary and since, that’s been the biggest challenge really to extend our original agreements, which have proved extremely durable. Those same agreements are largely still in place, the basic concepts of them, and effective and still in television the best agreements in the world.”

McGarry had been 13 years a Labour Party agent and leader of Wandsworth council. Very much a grassroots left winger, he is a man who admits to feeling the Labour Party under Tony Blair has left him.

Odd then, that many political commentators have compared the way Equity modernised itself in the early nineties to the process of change undergone by the Labour Party shortly afterwards.

That change began a little after McGarry took over. Along with a council dominated by what was to become the still ruling although renamed Representative Conference Group, Peter Boyden was commissioned to write a report on how Equity could best go about restructuring itself to meet the demands of a changing world.

That report went on to form the basis for Action 2000 – the reformation package that would become arguably McGarry’s primary legacy to the union.

“We had for so many years simply gone on doing things the way we had done them and we weren’t actually asking ourselves, is this the best way to represent our members,” he recalls.

“And so that was really the start of the process of thinking, how do we make the transition from rather old-fashioned, rather cosy union sheltering within the closed shop into a very different modern world and how do we bring the members with us. And that was my first attempt to try to find a strategy to deal with that.”

Boyden’s report was far more radical than the proposals eventually adopted by the union. Nevertheless, the changes were not without controversy – not least the merging of the variety and theatre departments, leading to the redundancy of the very popular variety chief Eddie Saville and a feeling among the light entertainers that they were being ostracised.

McGarry, of course, does not agree. “I very much saw that as a bringing variety right into the heart of the union. Out there in the world of performance I don’t meet many people who perceive a difference between variety performance and people working on the stage.

“I think they wrongly mistook it as some kind of attack on the variety section. It was never intended to be so and I think the success of Christine [Payne] in that period in theatre and variety has demonstrated that wasn’t the case.”

It became harder to justify the other aim of Action 2000 – to create viable, sustainable financial security for the union. While the audited accounts for 1999 showed a £14,605 trading profit, some – former treasurer Milton Johns among them – claimed sleight of hand. Then, 12 months later, the Twin Towers were attacked.

“We set the ambition of balancing the books on the general fund and we achieved that, within the time frame set down, but then things became very difficult for everybody,” recalls McGarry.

“Our investments went down like everybody else’s on the Stock Exchange. We had to find extra money for pension funds and all sorts of demands that we weren’t anticipating, which did set us back. But we have since then got back on to an even keel, balancing our books, and I am pretty confident we can remain so.”

It was, says McGarry, one of the reasons he stood again for general secretary four years ago – to make sure that he left the union in good financial shape. He thinks he has done. Membership has risen to its highest level since 1995 and that despite a series of subscription charge hikes that could hit a £100 minimum after the next Annual Representative Conference.

So everything is rosy? There is one thing that still rankles with McGarry. The ongoing, decade-old commercials dispute. Began after the advertising production companies insisted voiceover artists have a two-thirds pay cut, it has never been resolved and should mean all Equity members refuse VO work. As it is, those who accept are not protected by Equity contracts.

“The TV commercials dispute was, and you can’t disguise the fact, a major setback for the union. Looking back on it, as I have done personally and with colleagues and members, I can’t see how we could have avoided that dispute.”

For now McGarry says he wants “a fairly clean break from Equity” – although he remains a member of the Equity Trust Fund and is vice-president of FIA, the International Federation of Actors. He adds: “I think I should get out of the way. I don’t want to be the ghost at the feast.”

Being out of the way, sees him renovating a cottage in Somerset, being a grandfather to three and “still whenever I can getto the theatre because that is what I love most of all.”

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