Equity's Union-Busting Tactics

Original image by Rick Baumgartner

In its battle with a majority of its Los Angeles members over the 99-seat theater plan, Actors Equity is deploying some of the union-busting tactics that have been used for over a century by employers bent on crushing grassroots labor movements. But, in this case, Equity may end up busting up its own union.

"Divide and conquer" has been the strategy of anti-labor movements for years. The trick is to peel off support from a grassroots movement by offering to compromise on issues that benefit a portion of the movement, but weakens the larger group. For example, Equity modified its original proposal to prevent new members from joining the so-called membership companies -- groups of actors who formed their own theaters companies. Equity's "new" rule permits those companies to accept new members, but does not allow actors to form new membership companies.

It's a perfect example of "divide and conquer" that will ultimately lead to the decline of L.A. theater. Why? Because talented young actors, fresh out of drama school or college, will be unable to form their own companies with their colleagues. No more actors like Tim Robbins forming the Actors Gang, or ACT graduates starting Noise Within, or a host of other companies.

Equity supporters point to the 50-seat "showcase" code as an opportunity for startups, but who can imagine paying the rent or utility bills with only 50 seats to fill -- it's practically impossible already with 99 seats. And, to make matters worse, under the proposed "showcase" code, actors are prohibited from forming non-profit corporations to raise funds. In effect, it means that the next generation of talented, energetic young actors will not be able to form companies that present imaginative and inventive theater in L.A.

In a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, theater critic Charles McNulty disagreed with the notion that Equity has been "ignoring its members and of setting out to destroy the city's unique ecosystem of small theater," and he questioned the value of L.A.'s small theater scene as "a flourishing hotbed of experiment."

As the sole remaining full-time newspaper theater critic in L.A., it is understandable that McNulty would take that view. His beat is essentially the major and mid-sized theaters in town, with trips to New York, Orange County and San Diego to cover the larger theater venues. So, his experience with L.A.'s smaller theater scene is limited, as he himself admits.

McNulty's hope, which he concedes may be a "critic's pipe dream," is that mid-size institutions could develop that offer adventurous plays not currently found in L.A.'s larger theaters and, at the same time, attract audiences and ultimately become profitable enough to pay their actors a living (not a minimum) wage. Unfortunately, McNulty's dream, while admirable, is indeed a pipe dream. There is no indication that L.A. audiences would support many more of the mid-sized venues he envisions, nor is there much appetite for theatrical producers or even actor-based companies to take the extraordinary leap into the mid-sized minefield.

There is also a fundamental misconception of the role of a labor union in all this. Labor unions are organized for one simple purpose -- to represent their members. They are not there to create or alter the landscape of the marketplace or even to promote higher goals like creating a more vibrant artistic environment. That is the job of the artists, who are the creators, after all. So when a labor union defies a two-thirds vote of its local membership to pursue its own leadership's agenda, it has failed in its core task.

It is difficult to predict where this dispute will lead. The most likely outcome is some negotiated legal agreement which begins with the terms of a legally binding settlement signed almost 30 years ago establishing the 99-seat theater plan. That must be the starting point for any changes in the rules for L.A. theater, not an arbitrary ruling by a national leadership council that appears to have little understanding of L.A. theater, and even less ability to effectively communicate with and represent its membership.

A more ominous outcome would be a splitting of a union that has been in existence for more than one hundred years. This would not be unprecedented, since many unions that abandoned their membership were soon abandoned themselves. Unfortunately, Equity has been made serious missteps before, when it tried to stifle the Off-Broadway movement in the 1950s and the Off-Off-Broadway movement in 1960s, both of which represented periods of grassroots creative renaissance and produced some of the most important works and institutions in American theater. Hopefully, the Equity leadership will not continue to stand in the way of the continued creative blossoming of the Los Angeles theater community.