Editorial: Big drama in small theaters over wages for actors

It’s not news when employers complain that unions are trying to drive them out of business. What’s unusual about the dispute between small theater companies in Los Angeles County and Actors Equity, which represents stage performers nationwide, is that those complaints are coming from union members too.

And that’s just one of the odd aspects of the move by Actors Equity to require small theaters here — those with 99 or fewer seats — to pay actors at least the minimum wage by mid-2016. Another is that for years, stage actors in those theaters have been treated as volunteers not subject to the wage and hour laws that apply to all other employees working on the production.

Under the terms of a 1989 settlement between Actors Equity and 15 of its members, small theaters can pay actors as little as $7 per performance, with no compensation at all for the time spent in rehearsals. The rationale was to increase the supply of acting jobs, providing more exposure for struggling actors. The settlement also acknowledged that many of these small theater companies were led by actors looking for a way to practice their craft, not to make boffo returns. Yet the same arguments could apply to many nonprofits and small businesses that are nevertheless compelled to comply with wage and hour laws.

State labor officials have taken no action against small theaters, evidently because no actors filed complaints about their wages (or lack thereof). But some equity members did complain to their union, which proposed in February to mandate at least the minimum wage at small venues not operated by an acting company already in existence — a change that would quadruple the cost of hiring actors. This proposal, in turn, generated a fierce blowback from members, some of whom were producers as well as performers. The union’s Los Angeles members voted 2-to-1 against the plan in a non-binding referendum last week.

On Tuesday, the union decided to implement a modified version of the proposal despite the opposition from the rank-and-file, giving small theaters a year to adapt and providing certain exemptions for acting companies and low-budget productions. Considering the law’s requirements, it’s hard to see how the union could justify demanding less than the minimum wage, even though it will reduce the supply of professional acting gigs.
But having raised the cost of employing its members, the union should keep working with small theaters to make sure actors still have jobs to fill. Meanwhile, the episode should remind lawmakers that even when it makes sense to raise wages for some workers, there are still consequences for others.


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