Equity Wars: All's Quiet on the Western Front

Maybe it's the summer doldrums, but an uneasy quiet has settled in on the Western Front war between Actors' Equity and LA's 99-seat theater movement. After a heated debate, a local referendum and the election of a new Equity president and several new Council members, a hiatus is understandable, but still troubling. Grassroots movements typically lose steam with the passage of time, which generally favors establishment institutions.

It is true that the pro-99 movement has some difficult decisions to make, while Equity, having won the latest rounds in this battle, is in a better position to sit back and wait. The only real card the pro-99 group now has to play is the threat of a lawsuit. However, that is a pretty strong card indeed, since the 1987 court settlement which created the 99-seat plan still represents the governing law on the issue. When Equity scrapped the 99-seat plan despite a 2-1 vote of the LA membership, it clearly violated both the letter and the spirit of the court agreement.

In a recent interview with Steven Leigh Morris, publisher of Stage Raw, Rebecca Metz, one of the leaders of the pro-99 group, expressed the ambivalence of some of the pro-99 leadership about the lack of trust on both sides and the option of suing their union. "Equity has to come up with ways to address the trust issue, because it's a huge obstacle. I don't know that [suing them] would be better. I personally am not interested in suing anybody. I can't speak for others. I will say I think it will behoove us to find every way we possibly can to resolve this directly with the union."

While Equity's Executive Director Mary McColl has urged the LA membership to give the Equity plan a "test drive," the pro-99 group is split over whether Equity will ever make changes to the plan in response to LA membership objections. Metz apparently believes in giving Equity a shot. "It sounds simplistic and Pollyannaish, but I think we have to let it play out. The people who are enraged have to decide what they're going to do with that rage. We have to let the people who believe in the long game and internal processes work on that. Let (new Equity President) Kate (Shindle) and the newly elected council get established, and see what impact they may have. The idea that this is what they passed and it's not going to change is silly. Everything changes eventually. It's just a question of where and when."

Certainly the goal of bringing Equity and the pro-99 membership together is a laudable one that should be pursued in the long-term. And changes to the 25-year old 99-seat plan should also be the ultimate goal. However, while most of the pro-99 membership would agree with these long-term goals, there is deep division over tactics, with one faction counseling patience and another arguing for aggressive action. The problem is that, from a tactical standpoint, time rarely favors an insurgency. Unless established and hidebound institutions are forced to change, they rarely do so. From the early civil rights struggles to the campaign for gay marriage, it was legal action that sharpened the spear of these social movements.

While it is an overstatement to compare the battle of the LA actors against their union to the epic civil rights battles, there are tactical lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, in any important struggle, those in power will not cede that power voluntarily. Furthermore, they are usually convinced of the correctness of their long-standing views and are unlikely to see the validity of the other side, particularly when they have little regard for the insurgents in the first place. In a situation like that, the law is the ultimate protection for the powerless. That, after all, is the highest purpose of the law.

It is undeniable that people hate lawsuits, lawyers and courts. They are expensive, messy and frustrating. But they are frequently the only way to obtain a fair settlement of serious disputes. And in this case, there is no question that Equity and the LA membership have a serious dispute. For whatever reason, Equity's leadership either does not understand or is unwilling to recognize the specific environment of LA theatre. And the membership, which voted overwhelmingly against Equity's proposal to scrap the 99-seat plan, is unwilling to buckle under to Equity's demands.

In a perfect world, it would be wonderful if Equity and the pro-99 group could sit down, iron out their differences and come up with a workable plan. However, in the real world, that does not happen without some kind of external pressure on the participants. In this case, that pressure has to be a court review of the 1987 settlement agreement. Whether that review would lead to a workable out-of-court compromise, or even a court ruling on the issue, it would go a long way to resolve an issue that will only fester if left unaddressed.