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Everyone Needs an ‘Equity Card’

Lily Tomlin at An Evening for Women
Harmony Gerber

The younger people in my life introduce me to songs they consider vintage but that are completely new to me. The Dead Kennedys, for example, are alive and well on my most recent playlist. And just this morning I heard, for the first time, "Work Bitch," by Britney Spears. As I listened to her sing "Bring it on/ring the alarm/don’t stop now/just be the champion," I added, in my best BritBrit voice, "and get a labor union, get some collective bargaining." (This is what it is like to ride in the car with me.)

The movie "9 to 5" came out when I was in sixth grade. It was a hit, even in West Texas. The decade that was the '80s was full of "Work Bitch" songs—beats to sweat off the toxic stress of the union-busting Ronald Reagan era. But no "Eye of the Tiger" could compare with the thrill of the fight that Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda carried out together on screen. I had overheard grown women around me shaking their heads with a kind of laughter mixed with wistful, delayed revenge. When I saw the movie with friends in the theater, my laughter was mixed with dread. Is this what work looks like for grown women? Are there really bosses who actually pull this sort of crap with women? No wonder my mother and her friends wanted a labor union.

When looking up more about Tomlin, the first news item to pop up was her recent interview with Shalini Dore for Variety, a source for "the Business of Entertainment" (Aug. 24, 2018). Tomlin recently has received yet another Emmy nomination for the TV series "Grace and Frankie." Right off the bat, Tomlin brings up her Equity card. Dore’s first question is about the first time Variety noted Tomlin’s work (in 1964) and Tomlin’s immediate response is "I got my Equity card then." Three sentences later, she repeats "It was terrific to get my Equity card." Yes, it was fantastic to be mentioned in Variety in 1964, but Tomlin impresses on Dore and Variety readers that this was the year she became part of the Actors’ Equity (AEA), a labor union that represents people working in live theater performance. She names for readers following "the Business of Entertainment" that her career in the business included, from the get-go, the collaborative kinship of courage that is collective bargaining.

Mitchell Robinson teaches music education at Michigan StateUniversity, and he recently published a blog post that was picked up by Business Insider under this headline: "Beneath the 'heartwarming' teacher stories, there’s a real issue with the way public school teachers are treated." His essay names the lie behind the kind of "Work Bitch" news pieces published regularly in too many outlets—tales of individuals in public education whose "sacrifice" shows "resilience," "tenacity" and "dedication." In other words, stories about how one person’s effort is "making a difference" for families. Robinson concludes:

These stories aren’t "heartwarming" and they don’t show "dedication." They demonstrate that we as a society are unwilling to spend our resources on supporting and caring for the schools and teachers that we entrust with the support and care of our children—and refuse to treat the persons we entrust their care to as professionals or even as human beings deserving of our respect and some basic human dignity.

Journalist Adam Johnson has called these stories out as "perseverance porn." From coverage of NFL players to Hollywood actors to public school teachers, even liberal media outlets churn out features about individuals who contribute to sports, entertainment or education against all odds and alone. Meanwhile, the real news is that, against all odds and together, NFL players and public school teachers are, across the country, engaging in efforts to bargain collectively for the good of their sport, their teams and their schools. Even without a labor union, in states and in professions that try structurally to prohibit labor unions, they are engaging in union-like behavior.

The three women working together in "9 to 5" fantasize about ways they can, individually, rectify their crooked workplace. Their revenge montages may appear campy today. But my sixth-grade self took note. You can pour yourself a "cup of ambition" (as Dolly sings). But what you really need is a group of co-workers who will have your back. Their collective courage on screen was inspiring, but I wanted more. I wanted a world where I didn’t need a gun, rat poison or rope at my workplace. Like Lily Tomlin, we each need an Equity card. We need one another for the collective courage that was and is collective bargaining.

Amy Laura Hall has taught ethics at Duke University since 1999. Her most recent book is Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. This post originally appeared at the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.

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