Business & Economy

Actors' Equity heads to court over minimum wage dispute

Actors protest in support of 99-seat theaters outside the Actors Equity Association's headquarters in North Hollywood.
Actors protest in support of 99-seat theaters outside the Actors Equity Association's headquarters in North Hollywood.
Brian Watt

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After months of attempted negotiations, leaders from the Actors' Equity Association are headed to federal court to settle a disagreement with their members over how much actors should be paid when they perform in small theaters.

The rift within the union began last year, when Equity's leadership announced a proposed amendment to their membership rules, to force owners of small theaters (those with 99 seats or less) to pay Equity actors minimum wage for each hour of rehearsal and performance time. Traditionally, small theaters pay actors a small stipend per performance, often just $7.

Equity actors immediately joined with theater owners and pushed back on the proposed amendment. They argued that small theaters wouldn't be able to afford the pay increase and would close. Actors said that would deny them the opportunity to perform in small local theaters, where they willingly participate for the exposure and practice, not the pay.

After the proposed amendment was announced, union members voted two-to-one against a pay increase in a non-binding vote. Equity leadership went along with their plan anyway. Their national council voted for the pay amendment, with a few modifications. That prompted some member actors to file a lawsuit against the union last October.

The two parties decided to settle their issues in private negotiations last December. But it was announced yesterday that since disagreements could not be resolved, the case will go to federal court.

The details of those meetings are confidential per negotiation agreements, but Gary Grossman, an actor and plaintiff in the suit, told KPCC they didn't go well.

"They listened, we listened... we had the meetings, and they were unsuccessful," he said. 

Grossman said he agrees with the union that actors should be paid the minimum wage, but explained that most small L.A. theaters can’t make that leap right now.

“What we’ve been talking about and trying to get across is a ‘step’ kind of platform to get us there. There's got to be a solution wherein theaters can grow so they can eventually get to contract so they can eventually grow to be a mid-size house. That’s what we’ve always been asking them to do. We want a plan that will work.”

Equity and the other plaintiffs are headed to federal court in July, according to the plaintiffs' representation. 

Actors' Equity declined KPCC's request for an interview, but sent the following statement, which read in part: "Actors’ Equity Association and the plaintiffs in the Asner vs. Actors’ Equity litigation announced today that they were unable to resolve their dispute.  Due to previously agreed upon ground rules, both parties are unable to comment on the actual discussions. Labor unions, including Actors’ Equity Association (Equity), exist primarily to advocate for better wages and working conditions for their members.  For more than a century, Equity has fought for the basic principle that its members deserve to be paid for their work and to be treated fairly."