99 Problems: Minimum Wage Proposal Divides Los Angeles Actors

Pro-99 rally, in front of Actors' Equity Association. | Photo: Enci Box/Bitterlemons.com

[Update April 17, 2015, 1:39pm: The ballots for Actors' Equity Association 99-Seat Proposal Advisory Referendum have been tabulated: Yes votes: 1,075 / No votes: 2,046. The Equity's National Council will meet on Tuesday, April 21 to discuss the results of vote by Equity members, to determine whether or not to enact the proposal. Read more about the results here.]

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Chants of "We want change! Not this change!" rang through the North Hollywood air on Monday afternoon, as almost 400 actors and other Los Angeles small-theater community stakeholders marched down Lankershim Boulevard toward the Actors' Equity Association stage actors' union office building for a protest rally. Like all of the event's organizers and featured speakers, many in the crowd were active union members. Their protest, though, was directed not against the practices of a theater business employer or management entity, but at AEA's own leadership.

The issue sparking the protestors' dissent is a union proposal for a new Los Angeles 99-Seat Theater Agreement that would require its members to be paid a minimum wage salary for productions in theaters with 99 or fewer seats, with very limited exceptions carved out for membership companies and individual productions that members produce on their own. Since negotiating a 99-Seat Theater Plan in the late 1980s, AEA has formally allowed member actors to volunteer their services or work for small stipends in these venues without a union contract.

So why would some members fight their own union's initiative to replace the old 99-seat plan with a standard contract guaranteeing them more money for these shows?

"Pro-99" actors, as opponents of the AEA proposal are called, insist that doing small theater productions can be crucial to their professional and artistic development in a show biz town where significant down time between projects is often a hard fact of life. Their fear now is that AEA's proposed minimum wage requirement would inflate production costs so much that the range of opportunities to work in a vibrant, if sometimes under-recognized, Los Angeles 99-seat theater scene would be curtailed.

What people in both camps agree is that enacting this proposal, or some amended version of it, would be a critical turning point for L.A. theater.

Frances Fisher speaks at Pro-99 rally in front Actors' Equity offices | Enci Box/Bitterlemons.com
Frances Fisher speaks at Pro-99 rally in front Actors' Equity offices | Enci Box/Bitterlemons.com

"Working with the 99-seat companies in Los Angeles has absolutely propelled my career, not only in the theater, but also in film and television," AEA member Adam Silver said after the rally.

Actor Betsy Zajko agreed, "We are still union supporters. We are simply campaigning against this proposal. The 99-seat plan is what has allowed me to carry my union card without cutting off my opportunities to perform with well-respected companies and collaborate with directors, designers and stage managers who all agree to offer their time for very little remuneration."

"Equity is not paying attention to the needs of the small theater community here in Los Angeles," another union member, Dennis Gersten, said at the march. "We've tried to talk about making some changes in the Plan. They want to wipe it out, and their proposals would do exactly that. It would destroy intimate theater in Los Angeles."

French Stewart marches in Pro-99 rally | Photo: Enci Box/Bitterlemons.com
French Stewart marches in Pro-99 rally | Photo: Enci Box/Bitterlemons.com

The public debate between supporters and opponents of AEA's proposal--in radio broadcasts, newspaper articles and op-eds, theater-related blogs and other online articles, critics' exchanges, and social media -- has been spirited since the union published it on February 6.

An AEA statement released just after Monday's rally declared that the union's "proposal responds to the hundreds of members who made it clear that they want to see real change in 99-Seat intimate theater and who want to be paid for their work." One of these members, Michael Dotson, observes that "opportunities to find an Equity contract in the Los Angeles area have diminished" since he joined the union almost 20 years ago. "Is 99-seat the reason? No, not exclusively. But it's not blameless. Any smart producer worth his or her salt will say, 'Why produce this new show and pay a whole cast of actors if I don't have to?' That will only change when -- together -- we demand more."

A non-binding referendum on the proposal among L.A. union members is currently underway in advance of an official vote by AEA's 83 national Councilors on April 21. Though AEA has advised members that the referendum result -- which a union spokesperson confirms will be announced "at the appropriate time" after it is shared with the Council -- "is only one of many things that Council will consider when it deliberates these changes," the union has enlisted proposal supporters to participate in a telephone outreach campaign promoting a "Yes" vote. Pro-99's grassroots message is to vote "No." Pro-99 leader Rebecca Metz affirms that she has "spoken to some Councilors who have said that if there is a majority 'No' vote, they won't be able in good conscience to vote for this proposal because it doesn't reflect the will of the membership. I hope that's true."

Perry Ojeda, one of the actors who has been making phone calls for AEA, believes that "'Yes' equals a vote for change. If we want to keep the conversation going and get the problems that we have in the current situation addressed more quickly, we say 'Yes' to communicate to our leadership that with all the other information that's being gathered, this is the idea that we want to go forward. [Otherwise,] you'll have to go back to the drawing board and have another referendum, and that would be yet another year before we have any substantial change."

AEA's Western Regional Director Gail Gabler emphasizes that "we did months and months of listening to our members, so the proposal is responsive to what we heard from them. The ultimate decision will also be responsive to what we hear from members about this proposal."

This fall, AEA surveyed its L.A. actors about "being a working theater professional in Los Angeles and what it's like to be an Equity member," followed by focus groups and a town hall where members overwhelmingly spoke in favor of reforming, but not eliminating, the longstanding 99-seat plan. The union's current proposal, though, as Gabler readily points out, "makes significant changes by eliminating the current plan."

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While waiting for the speeches to begin in front of the AEA building on Monday, Pro-99er Jeff Marlow recalled that "when they sent out that online survey in the fall, I was one of the people who checked off the box asking 'Would you like to be paid more on contract?' I said 'Sure!' Of course you say yes to that. They took that to mean we don't want the 99-seat plan. That's certainly not what I was saying when I said I wanted more contract work."

At the town hall meeting, Marlow continued, "the consensus was very clear that members wanted a solution based on theater company, or production, tiers, where actor payments would increase with higher budgets and income, reflecting the huge diversity of 99-seat theaters in Los Angeles, from tiny storefront theaters to huge theaters with million-dollar operating budgets. And what Equity came back with was something that didn't reflect that at all. I think what frustrates so many members is the union says they're listening, but their actions don't indicate that."

What makes the tier proposals she's seen unacceptable, AEA's Western Regional Director Gabler says, is that they "go below the minimum wage, which is not something I think the Council was looking to do. The Council in this proposal was looking to at least start at minimum wage."

Establishing that minimum wage floor, AEA actor David Engel maintains, "is simply asking to be respected for our time, not even our skills. It is an insult for anyone to imply that we aren't worth being paid for our time at the very least. Yes, I love intimate theater, and I don't believe for a second that this change will put an end to intimate theater. It will survive and, if anything, thrive."

The problem, according to union member Kevin Meoak, who runs a small theater company downtown, is that "there's just not enough available money out there to raise" for most 99-seat companies in L.A. to pay Equity actors minimum wage. "Equity's hurting themselves by saying that every time someone in the union acts, it has to be under contract. It restricts the choice that actors have as artists if they always have to work as 'employees.' Artists get compensated in ways that aren't just financial."

For the moment neither AEA nor Pro-99 seems willing to cede ground on the question of replacing the 99-seat plan with a new minimum wage contract, though Pro-99's Donal Thoms-Cappello is adamant that "nobody wants permanent enmities to emerge from this." His fellow activist actor David Bickford jokes that he can even see the other side's point of view: "If I wasn't aware of the value of 99-seat theater, I'd say 'Yeah, of course the actors should be paid. Let's close these sweatshops!'"


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