Actors’ Equity Tells Its Story to Members

In addition to distributing an official statement on its website, Actors’ Equity told its side of the story to end the 99-Seat Plan in Los Angeles in a letter to its members today.  Significantly, no union official nor any elected union representative was attached to the letter:

Over the past year, you have probably become aware of our union’s efforts to organize some of the small theaters in Los Angeles County. After months of conversation with the LA community, Council passed a series of resolutions in April 2015 designed to ensure that a percentage of the actors in small theaters there would begin to be paid a wage.

What has resulted from this effort has been an extremely unpleasant, and very public, campaign of misinformation and propaganda from a concentrated group of members and producers. They have claimed that Actors’ Equity is trying to destroy Los Angeles theatre, even though the sum total of Council’s actions last April—including all the carve-outs eventually included for members who legitimately wanted to continue to volunteer for the sake of artistic satisfaction—meant that a total of only 26 small LA theaters would be subject to organizing and contract work. 26. Just about 14% of the 180 which regularly utilized the old 99-seat plan. This group has openly threatened Equity staff and Councillors and blacklisted members of their own community for speaking on behalf of fair pay. And in October, representatives of this ideology sued our union with the intent of undoing the Council’s work, and demanded that we negotiate with them in order to avoid service of the lawsuit.

In an effort to avoid a litigation that would cost our members hundreds of thousands of dollars, Equity agreed to meet with the plaintiffs for a series of facilitated discussions. Unfortunately, those talks ended this week without success. Although we are not permitted to disclose any of the details of the discussions, we are writing to advise our members that we expect to proceed to litigation and will file an immediate motion to dismiss what we view as a specious, disingenuous and punitive lawsuit. And we want you, our members, to know that we tried everything we could not only to avoid this step, but also to reunite our union for the purposes of strengthening our bargaining power with employers. We are extremely disappointed that we were unable to reach an agreement.

For more than a century, Equity has fought for the basic principle that actors deserve pay. Across nearly every negotiating table, we hear that if we insist on higher wages, a more substantial health contribution, better working conditions, etc., our employers will no longer be able to produce theatre. As volunteers ourselves, your National Council devotes thousands upon thousands of hours per year to work on your behalf. We felt that we owed it to our membership to take all possible steps to avoid going to federal court. Our union lives at the intersection of art and commerce, which can be an extremely uncomfortable place to be. But as an institution, we do not believe that getting a wage for our work devalues our work. We now stand prepared to fight for our members, and to vigorously defend the union’s actions.

In Solidarity,

Actors’ Equity Association

For those following this story over the past year, Equity’s announcement is extremely one-sided.  It eliminates the facts that the Union has stood by its mathematically flawed survey results and that the Union chose to ignore an overwhelming landslide rejection of its moves by the broad Los Angeles theater community.

Instead, the letter attempts to demonize the voices representing the larger L.A. theater community and makes unsubstantiated claims about an effort to blacklist actors who support Equity’s position.   Many of the sentiments in the letter regarding Los Angeles theater were similar to comments made by Union President Kate Shindle in March and thoroughly refuted by actor Dakin Matthews (who is currently appearing on Broadway in Waitress).

In addition, an extensive database shows just how many 99-Seat Plan shows created real jobs as the intimate theater productions moved up to larger venues.  Indeed, a Tony nominee this year, Spring Awakening, was created under the 99-Seat Plan by the Deaf West Theatre Company only a year before the show made it to the Great White Way.  The Broadway production brought most of its Los Angeles cast along with it.

This is the type of art and opportunity that will be affected when Equity disallows the 99-Seat Plan.

What should be clear to all Union members is that the current problems Equity has in Los Angeles are quite broad and very much from a community, not a few actors.  Of eligible voters, more than 3x voted last year on the Equity referendum compared to the Council election just completed.  How much of Equity’s moves are actually based on its new relationship with the AFL-CIO are unclear but there are correlations in timing.

In addition, there is evidence Equity hasn’t thought through implementation of its own plan as revealed in this behind-the-scenes glimpse of Equity’s conversation with the intimate theater @BostonCourt.

The 99-Seat Plan, drawn up by Equity itself, is now an integral part of the Los Angeles stage tapestry.  It successfully demonstrated how artists can have both creative stage opportunities and a source of real income from their craft.  That’s why most Los Angeles actors still rally around the position:  “Change but not this Change.”

Equity’s members deserve to know the entire story and without distortion.

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The Official Statement from Equity found on its website:

Actors’ Equity Association Statement on Asner v. Actors’ Equity Litigation

Actors’ Equity Association and the plaintiffs in the Asner vs. Actors’ Equity litigation announced today that they were unable to resolve their dispute. Due to previously agreed upon ground rules, both parties are unable to comment on the actual discussions.

Labor unions, including Actors’ Equity Association (Equity), exist primarily to advocate for better wages and working conditions for their members. For more than a century, Equity has fought for the basic principle that its members deserve to be paid for their work and to be treated fairly. In an effort to ensure that a percentage of actors who appear onstage in 99-seat productions are paid a wage, the National Council of Equity conducted surveys and membership meetings over the course of several months. The Council conducted an advisory referendum and, after carefully considering the results, created opportunities that would allow for some members to work under contractual agreements and be paid at least minimum wage. The Council also created 3 internal union membership rules that provided members the opportunity to volunteer their time: a) self-producing, b) performing with membership companies, or c) appearing in 50-seat showcases. This was and remains an essential step forward for fair pay in LA County, which was out of sync with the rest of the nation prior to the new rules being adopted.

The 99-Seat Transitional Code, which was created to give theaters and producers time to make the transition to one of the contractual agreements or membership rules and was extended while the facilitated discussions with the plaintiffs were underway, will no longer be available, effective December 14, 2016.

While we are disappointed that this dispute will enter the courtroom, Equity intends to vigorously defend itself against the meritless lawsuit and will file an immediate motion to dismiss. We are fully prepared to defend both the process and the substance of Council’s actions.

In October 2015, Equity issued the following statement: It is disappointing that this prolonged process has now resulted in what will surely be a very expensive litigation for Actors’ Equity. Unfortunately, the real victims here are the members all over the country who understand that when a single community files costly lawsuits and buys full-page ads in major newspapers to insist that they should not be paid, it has an inevitable and deleterious effect on the union’s bargaining power for the rest of its members.

Background:
Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) is the labor union which represents more than 50,000 professional stage actors and stage managers nationwide. Equity negotiates wages, working and safety conditions, and provides a wide range of benefits including health, pension and 401k plans for its members.

Over the course of several months, Equity conducted surveys and membership meetings and after considering the results of the advisory referendum, the National Council, Equity’s governing body, carved out even more exemptions to the original proposals. By doing so, the National Council created a system that would allow for some members to be paid minimum wage for rehearsals and performances. In addition, those members who chose to would still be able to self-produce, appear in showcase productions in theaters with 50-seats or less or participate with membership companies under the new internal union membership rules.

About Kevin Delin

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Kevin Delin took a few writing courses (among other things) at MIT from playwright A.R. Gurney and author Frank Conroy. He’s got a PhD in physics and has patented technology at NASA. His adventures include deploying his technology with firefighters in first response operations, inventing the future with venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and solving national security issues with generals inside the Pentagon. Unable to convince backers to turn his textbook, Foundations of Applied Superconductivity, into the Broadway spectacular it merits, Kevin found other ways of making mischief in the entertainment industry. Drawing from his extensive tech background, he professionally advises storytellers who want to ground their work in science. His own writings include both scripts and essays. He is a proud member of the Antaeus Playwrights Laboratory and his pieces on art and culture have been published in American Theatre, LA Weekly, Script Magazine, Footlights, and Stage Raw. You can follow him on Twitter @kdelin and read him at kevindelin.com.

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2 comments

  1. It also ignores that in New York City, AEA allows Union members to volunteer in small theatres. There is no reason LA should have to fight so hard to be given considerations that NYC members have.

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