Actors' Equity Strikes Back at Minimum-Wage Lawsuit Filed by Its Own Members, Citing "Deleterious Effect" on Bargaining Power

News   Actors' Equity Strikes Back at Minimum-Wage Lawsuit Filed by Its Own Members, Citing "Deleterious Effect" on Bargaining Power Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers, issued a statement Oct. 19 regarding the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Federal Court Oct. 17 by actors and other members of the L.A. theatrical community.

The national council of Actors' Equity decided in April to require 99-seat theatres in Los Angeles to pay actors no less than minimum wage — currently $9 a hour — despite strong opposition from the local actors at those theatres.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are L.A.-based members of Equity, together with other theatrical artists and theatre operators who had entered into a litigation Settlement Agreement with the Union in 1989 that established a system for regulating future changes to the Equity Waiver program.

Plaintiffs claim that the Union’s decision to end Equity Waiver "will unfairly destroy small theater in Los Angeles and deprive thousands of actors of opportunities to collaborate on creative theatrical projects," according to a recent press statement.

The Oct. 19 Actors' Equity statement reads, "Actors' Equity Association is a labor union that exists primarily to advocate for better wages and working conditions for its artist members.

"After dedicating months of staff time, conducting surveys and membership meetings — and considering the results of the advisory referendum, which prompted AEA's Council to carve out even more exemptions to its original proposals — the governing body created a system that would allow for some members to be paid minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, while those who chose to would still be able to volunteer their time to a) self-produce, b) perform with membership companies under the new internal membership rules, and c) appear in 50-seat showcases. Only non-member-driven producing organizations are subject to the new minimum wage requirements, which are certainly not a radical concept in any case. "It is disappointing that this prolonged process has now resulted in what will surely be a very expensive litigation for 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.

Equity is fully prepared to defend both the process and the substance of Council's actions."

Read Playbill.com's earlier coverage: Actors' Equity's Proposal for L.A.'s Small Theatres Elicits Uproar and Equity Council Will Require Minimum Wage at L.A. 99-Seat Theatres.

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The lawsuit alleges that the "stage actors’ union violated this Settlement Agreement by improperly interfering with the democratic and due process procedures established in the Agreement to prevent any unilateral Union decision to eliminate the world of intimate theater." The lawsuit complains that Equity’s new rules, including a prohibition on volunteer acting at small theatres and a new wage compensation obligation on these theatres, will "force theaters to close, reduce their production runs, or to hire non-union volunteer actors in place of Union actors."

The plaintiffs, however, will refrain from serving the Complaint immediately; they hope the Union will respond to their request to meet and confer about a mutually acceptable resolution.

“Although we have now filed the complaint, we have not yet served it on the Union,” stated Steven Kaplan, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “We have asked the Union to take this opportunity to avoid the time, expense and acrimony of litigation, and sit down with its members to discuss a mutually advantageous resolution.”

Gary Grossman, a member of Equity and one of the plaintiffs in the 1989 litigation, added, “This lawsuit became necessary because Equity refused to comply with the preliminary procedural protections built into our 1989 Settlement Agreement. These procedural protections were designed to ensure that, before substantial changes were made to the 99-Seat Theater Plan, meaningful discussions would take place within the small theater community.”

Actor Michael A. Shepperd, also a plaintiff, stated, “Our members voted to reject the Union’s actions by a 2-1 margin in one of the largest election turnouts in the organization’s history. We are terribly disappointed that our Union rejected the principle of democracy on which it was founded, and foisted on Union members new rules that will harm all actors in the long run.”

Actress Karen Kondazian, another plaintiff, explained that “the majority of Los Angeles artists who work in small theaters want Equity to put a moratorium on these new plans in order for local members’ voices to be adequately and fairly heard, and for the Union to work together with a task force of local theater artists to develop a comprehensive plan that will adequately address the needs of the Los Angeles theater community. But our leadership turned a deaf ear to our concerns.”

Another plaintiff, actor French Stewart, stated that “we would hate to see either the death of intimate theater or the world of small theater go non-union. Equity’s decision was short-sighted and likely will contribute to an erosion of unionized acting in Los Angeles.”

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