From John Rubinstein. Reprinted with permission:
As many of you know, AEA sent out an email to its members titled “Message re Proposed Changes to 99-Seat Theatre.” I would reprint it here, but they put a warning at the bottom which states that no part of the email may be reproduced in any format without written permission from AEA. Why that’s there, or whether it’s legal to make a decree like that, I don’t really know. If you are a member and received this email, I urge you to read it. Its basic message is that if we want “change,” which they pointedly do not specify or explain, we should vote YES on the proposal. I wrote a long response (see below. Take aspirin first) and sent it to them as a reply.
I also communicated yesterday with my friend Nick Wyman, president of Actors’ Equity. He is a man with a big heart and a good mind, who cares deeply about his work for the union; and he wrote me the following response (I asked him if he minded if I posted it, and he said “Post away.”)
From Nick Wyman, President, Actors’ Equity Association
“Thank you very much for reaching out to me to weigh in on 99 Seat Theater in Los Angeles. I have received dozens and dozens of e-mails, and I have read every one at least twice. This is an issue of critical importance to the union and to me personally and I have spent much of my waking (and non-waking) hours occupied with how best to resolve this.
I’m an actor just like the concerned folks in LA. I readily acknowledge the value of Theater as a source of Creativity and Community and Career Opportunities, and in my own life, those have frequently trumped Cash as a reason to do a particular job. I value Theater. I also value Actors. Part of my/our conundrum is how to value Actors without damaging Theater. Personally, I think an Institution set up to create Theater for paying audiences, an Institution which pays for space and sets and costumes and props and frequently designers and directors, should also pay for actors.
This proposal — and that’s what it is, a proposal — has engendered much discussion. (I listened carefully to all of the discussion at the Town Hall and Special Membership Meetings at the Sportsmen’s Lodge, and I took extensive notes.) Later this month there will be a referendum of all paid-up AEA members in LA County on this particular proposal. Finally your elected representatives on the Equity Council, your fellow actors and stage managers, will debate and vote on this issue in late April, taking into account not only the results of the referendum but all the concerns raised at the LA meetings, in e-mails, on social media and in one-on-one discussions.
If you have any thoughts, suggestions or concerns you want to share with me, please fire away. I promise you they will be factored into the decision process in April.”
Here is the long treatise I sent as a reply to the AEA email urging us to vote YES for change. I also sent a separate copy to Nick, as I’m not sure who actually receives and/or reads a reply to a mass emailing from the union:
John Rubinstein’s Reply:
This campaign letter from you, Actors Equity, is disingenuous, misleading, entirely one-sided, and manipulative.
You repeat, like a slogan, “If you are for change, you should vote YES . . .”
But you carefully make sure NOT to indicate that if we do vote YES, we are voting only for THIS specific and particular change, not for “change” in general, as you are pretending to imply. Those are vastly different concepts, and outcomes, as you well know.
You are using manipulation, fake spin, and ambiguous, purposefully misleading language in order to influence the members to vote your way. Why? It must be because you know how sincere, truthful, fact-based, and heartfelt the opposition is, and you hope to persuade the many other voting members, who may not have followed the discussion closely, to vote YES blindly, assuming that their union — who, after all, “are actors and stage managers too” — must certainly have their interests at heart.
I know, I hear, and I believe, that the council, and the president, and all those of you who have crafted this letter and sent it out, think you are taking steps with this proposal that will ultimately achieve a better financial situation for us, your actor-members. You have come up with this set of regulations as a prescription for what you somehow see as a large-scale case of actors being deprived of what is their rightful, and realistically achievable, due. But you are basing your suggested new rules on what appears to be either no factual information at all, or some sporadic true facts that you are incorrectly assuming to be far more widespread than they are. Or something. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend why on earth you would want to enact this proposal, given the very easy-to-perceive true harm it would inevitably cause the people you work for, in exchange for absolutely no amelioration of any kind for anything or anyone at all.
Sure, we all want “change” for the better. Who doesn’t? But THIS change will destroy small theater in Los Angeles. Period. It will not garner a single penny more for actors doing 99-seat theater in this city so full of actors happily doing small theater BY CHOICE. It will, however, make it impossible for most of those theaters to keep providing the spaces and the opportunities for thousands of LA actors to do what they choose, and love, to do.
So, actually, a clear and resounding NO vote is what is called for here. NO. “Change?” fine. But emphatically not THIS change!
The utter falsehood you are so aggressively (and inexplicably) promoting is that if we vote for this “change” — which dictates that actors in 99-seat theater must hereafter be paid by the hour, and be paid at least minimum wage — suddenly, magically and spontaneously, all this gorgeous, hidden money will unearth itself and be bestowed upon the actors; the small theaters will continue to put forth all those terrific productions, but, at long last, the actors will be taking home a decent living wage, instead of doing all that wonderful work for next to nothing. Those greedy, unscrupulous producers will finally be forced to stop hiding all those extra profits under their mattresses.
“Actors should be paid for their work.” Hell, YES! Vote YES, and your wonderful work will continue as before, but you will finally be paid four or five times more for it! Sound good? It sure does to me. Thank you and bless you, AEA!!
But it’s a lie. And you know it is. Because all that extra money that your ENTIRE PROPOSAL rests on — the money we foolish, gullible actors are being swindled out of, and which those of us urging a NO vote are trying, so irrationally, to deny ourselves and our fellow union actors, that big pot of extra money out of which all these fabulous, long-overdue higher wages will be scooped — DOES NOT EXIST.
The reality, the FACT, that you continue, over and over again, to ignore, is that all your vacuous, well-meaning pronouncements that “actors should be paid for their work”, an idea that is certainly the opinion of 100% of the membership, and so obvious that it makes my teeth ache to read and hear you repeat it ad nauseam — are based on the completely fictional assumption that most of these theaters are making substantial profits. Profits which they are refusing to share with the actors. And that this “change” will finally compel them to divvy up the copious spoils!
Problem is, that money is not there! The little theater companies are mostly operating in the red. The few that are managing to pay for themselves are doing so at a zero balance. They are NOT making net profits with which they could remunerate their actors at an adequate living wage level. And when THERE IS NO MONEY with which to pay actors adequately, then demanding adequate amounts of money is not only quixotic and naive, pointless and silly, but borders on being dangerously misguided, obtuse, and, finally, destructive to the very people you were elected, and are being paid, to speak for. Please try to forgive the anger apparent in my tone. I respect your efforts and motivation to help actors. This is just not anywhere near the way to do it.
Actors Equity was the first union I became a member of, almost fifty years ago. I have often proudly and gratefully worked as a union theater actor, and reaped the benefits of our various councils’ and representatives’ hard work for us over the years. I have also proudly and gratefully chosen to participate in the 99-seat theater community in Los Angeles, putting in long hours, rehearsing, acting, directing, designing sound, writing music, cleaning toilets, building sets, raising money, donating my own money, staging benefits, begging for money and equipment from friends and strangers to keep the theater going; never making a dime from any of it, and cherishing every minute of it.
I am a firm unionist. The new anti-union movement in this country, and the laws currently being passed in several states under its banner, are severely hurting the economic balance in this country, benefiting the owners more and more, while paying the workers less and less. When garment workers, automobile workers, hotel and airline and steel and restaurant workers, truckers and oil-riggers — the list is endless — when workers who are underpaid vote YES in their union for a proper living wage, they are asking the profitable companies and corporations they work for to share some of the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions, the billions, that those entities make in NET PROFITS, with the laborers who are the lifeblood of the organization. It makes total sense to do so, because the profits are there, the money exists. Those companies COULD pay much more to their workers.
And, very importantly, one would be hard-pressed to find the long-distance trucker, the hotel chambermaid, the coal miner, the busboy, who would choose, would want, would YEARN, to do their job for next to nothing in pay, and cherish even a single minute of it!
The theater is different
But the theater is different. We want to work for money, and we want to make a living, of course!! But only a small percentage of actors actually manage to do that. Not because of stingy producers, but because there are far more actors than there are opportunities for properly remunerative theater work. No actor who does 99-seat theater in LA expects it to pay his bills, or even his gasoline to get to work. Even if he or she got paid an hourly minimum wage for their work, it would barely scratch the surface of what it costs to live. Especially in Los Angeles. But we work in 99 anyway! We create our own theater companies, we volunteer, we freely and willingly participate in what is often truly high-level theatrical work, but for very low pay. Because we understand the simple truth: there is no money available. It’s not about the money — it’s about the work itself. Why would our own union want to take all that away from us? You say it’s so we’d get paid properly. But we won’t. We’ll just not get to work at what we love. So what are you really doing?
Demanding higher pay in LA small theater is like demanding regular rain in Los Angeles. Do LA folks deserve some predictable, consistent rain to fill their rapidly drying reservoirs? You bet. So, vote YES on the proposal for a compulsory six hours minimum of weekly rain. If it doesn’t rain predictably and consistently, then you leave Los Angeles. If you are for rain, you should vote YES. Really? And when that YES vote passes, will it suddenly, miraculously, start to rain for six hours every week? I don’t think so. In that made-up fantasy scenario, Los Angeles would simply become a city without people. Do actors deserve to be paid more? You bet. This proposal demands more pay for actors. So, if you are for change, you should vote YES! Really? From exactly where will all that hourly minimum wage start miraculously raining down on the happy actors? You guessed it. Los Angeles would simply become a city without small theater. And that’s neither fiction nor fantasy.
If your proposal gets the YES vote you are trying to maneuver your own dues-paying members to enact, its only effect will be to take away from those members the opportunity to do the work they love, the work they NEED to do. It won’t get them any more money for doing that work. Your repetition of the delusional idea that it would, will not make it so.
Please, stop pushing this badly conceived plan. Stop repeating your completely inaccurate slogans in order to get us to vote against our interests.
Change? Yes. I am for change: YOU change this proposal. Do the research. Figure out how to make the tiny number of theaters that might actually be earning a profit pay their actors accordingly. Leave all the rest alone. Don’t merely look at the gross annual income. Look at the net, AFTER expenses. If there are profits left over, the actors’ pay should go up in proportion. But only in proportion, and on an individual, theater-by-theater basis. If a theater makes no profits, and the actors want to work there anyway, LET THEM WORK.
If you throw this bad proposal into the garbage and start over, and come up with change that would actually benefit your actors instead of grievously hurting them, then, and only then, will you have actually served and helped the union members you represent. That would be change worth a YES vote. Come on, Equity. You can do it.