Longtime Actors' Equity Member John Rubinstein to the AEA Councillors: "You can still be a Council of colleagues, helping and supporting your constituents."

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Cribbed from the Pro99 Facebook Page. John Rubinstein an Equity member since 1965, as usual, cuts through the bullshit and lays it out plainly and clearly. Which is why the AEA National Councillors will more than likely summarily dismiss it or spin it into oblivion.

We won’t be doing that here at the Lemon.

From the Desk of John Rubinstein

To the AEA Council:

A year to the day after I wrote a long email to the Equity Council, before the referendum vote in Los Angeles about AEA’s new Proposal to do away with the long-standing 99-seat Plan there, I find myself writing again to the current Council. Many of you are still in your positions, and received my email last year. A few of you responded briefly, courteously and thoughtfully, and I remain appreciative. Most of you said nothing, perhaps because you disagreed so strongly with what I was saying; or perhaps because you didn’t read the entire lengthy email. Now, after the huge NO vote from the LA members against what was then a Proposal, and after that Proposal was immediately put into practice despite that vote, after the subsequent new lawsuit filed in court by Equity actors against their own union, and after some months of “discussions” that the union stops short of calling “negotiations,” I am compelled to write again. I sincerely apologize for the length of this letter, but I hope you will put in the time to read it all. If enough of you can let go of the false information, and spin, and loose talk, and just pure misunderstanding of the facts surrounding this whole issue that seem to swirl around the offices of our union, then there is a chance to not only save Equity and its loyal members from this painful legal battle, but to restore the proper relationship between you elected representatives, actors and stage managers yourselves, and the thousands of actors and stage managers who elected you and who depend on you to hear them, and to help them, and to represent them. Your opinions, your votes, can determine a swift and constructive result; one that benefits your actor-member-constituents, and stops this unnecessary argument and protracted, costly, fight.

1. There are thousands of actors in Los Angeles. More than in any other town but New York.

2. NONE (0) of them are there to make their living in live theater, because there is not a living to be made in live theater in Los Angeles. That is a key fact. And it is true. Please try to accept and absorb that fact. It is simply the case. And it is the basis for the ENTIRE argument.

3. The actors are there to TRY to make a living as actors - in TV and film. 

3a. A sadly small percentage actually manage to do so. (I have been lucky enough to be one of those for most of the years I’ve lived there, often just barely. “Lucky” being the operative word.)

3b. But the majority of LA actors - and most are Equity members, since they all started in theater somewhere, and keep paying their dues, out of loyalty and hope and a sense of professionalism and solidarity - who do NOT make their full living in TV and film (and commercials and voice-overs, and so on), even if they do work in those media occasionally, make their livings doing a vast array of other jobs, often two or three overlapping ones. They teach, they drive cabs and Ubers, they sell real estate, they work as nannies, waiters, carpenters, and life-guards, they work in retail stores, and on construction sites - the list is endless.

4. Many of those thousands of actors in LA, both those who work often in film and those who don’t, still want, still NEED, to ACT. They are still actors, no matter what they must do to pay their bills.

5. There is a handful, a small handful, of Equity theaters in Los Angeles that are large or established enough to present plays and musicals which pay Equity wages. This is because those theaters make enough of a profit from ticket sales and other funding to pay those wages. LA actors audition for those shows at those theaters, and sometimes are cast in them. But they almost never have runs that are long enough to sustain actors. And the jobs available in those theaters are few. So if an LA actor is lucky enough to get union work, paying work, on an LA stage, he or she is delighted, and enjoys it for an extremely limited time. And when that show is done, there is not a long list of other Equity theaters with profitable shows and paying roles waiting.

6. So, you have thousands of actors wanting and NEEDING to work as ACTORS. The ones who do get occasional television and film work are often playing tiny, relatively insignificant, non-challenging, unsatisfying parts. The SAG salary they get is good enough to pay the bills if they cobble enough of those jobs together, so they’re grateful, and hungry, for that work. But they still want and NEED to ACT.

7. The result of all of the above is: LA actors do it themselves. They group together, they do readings, they pay dues, they pool whatever money they do have to rent spaces where they can perform. They form companies. They put on plays. The venues are generally small. The ticket prices are low. They are their own producers. They are their own janitors and maintenance people. They scrape up enough to pay royalties, and, sometimes, very low fees to designers, some of whom actually do make their livings doing many small jobs in LA theaters.

8. Sometimes there is a “producer” involved, someone who is a business person and helps to put the whole package together. But there is NO SUCH THING in Los Angeles as a live-theater producer who runs a theater that turns a substantial profit, and makes money from the unpaid labor of abused actors. That image, that idea, constantly repeated by AEA, is absolute and utter FICTION. Actors and companies and theaters sometimes get more organized and form not-for-profit corporations; they raise funds; they apply for grants; they sometimes get it together to hire (and pay) general managers. But every penny goes into trying to get the play up, keeping the heating and air-conditioning running; buying enough insurance so they can invite the public in; and buying enough publicity so they can get the word out that their play and their theater exist. It is extremely hard work. And these thousands of actors do this, in roughly 200 small theaters, BECAUSE THEY MUST. They earn their livings and pay their bills doing other work. But they do theater because that is who they are, what they love, what they simply must do as artists.

9. For almost thirty years, a 99-Seat Plan - arbitrated by a judge in a legal, binding settlement, after a group of actors sued their own union, Actors’ Equity (sound familiar?) - has allowed this arrangement to exist and flourish. Actors were paid a small stipend for each performance; AEA provided protection to ensure safe and sanitary working conditions. There was a Review Committee of actors which had regular, required, meetings with the union officers. This Plan has worked very well for almost three decades. The few larger theaters continue to put on big shows under Equity contracts. And the small-theater community has grown and blossomed, often doing beautiful, artistic work. Since the actors volunteer, they are able to present large-cast Shakespeare and O’Neill and Gorky plays; big musicals, and vintage three-acters; also brand-new experimental works by young, beginning playwrights. Sometimes those shows even move to bigger Equity houses, and some even to Broadway. The current production of “Spring Awakening” on Broadway started in a 99-seat theater in Los Angeles. Frequently there are double-casts, so twice the number of actors have an opportunity to work. If, during rehearsals or even during the performance run, an actor gets a paying job on TV or in a movie or commercial, or even an audition, he or she is free to go and do it. If actors do not want to work under these conditions, they simply don’t. Those who do, reap tremendous personal and artistic rewards.

10. So you have a very, very large community of professional actors who are creating their own stage work, honored, happy and proud to do so. You have very good support from audiences, because the quality of the work is generally good and the prices are always low. But these productions nonetheless are all just barely scraping by, financially. The key is: nobody is doing it for the money. Not the actors, and not the producers, if there are any. Because the money simply is not there!

11. Actors’ Equity has never liked this Plan, this agreement - because they do not make money from it. But, under the old Plan, they were still required to oversee these productions. This cost them man/hours. They do not want to “waste” their time supporting their own dues-paying members if the union is not reaping money from the enterprise. Never mind that all these actors are paying annual dues to the union, and when and if they do get contract work, they pay work dues in addition. Never mind that their productions always have the chance of “moving up” to contract, and this is the laboratory situation where such work can be developed. Never mind that these artists are committed to the work they do, and that it benefits them, the union membership at large, the theater-going public, the local communities - and Theater and the Arts, in the broadest, most general sense.

12. Because the union wants all these little unprofitable theaters to disappear, AEA came up with their new Proposal, which dictates, among many other restrictive and destructive new measures and rules, that actors in these small venues must be paid minimum wage per hour for all rehearsals and performances. Our union did this with the full intention of ending small professional theater in Los Angeles. That was the clear purpose. But they simultaneously launched an enormous propaganda campaign, pretending to be “doing their job” as a union, standing up for their abused members against fat-cat producers, protecting actors’ rights and providing them with long overdue remuneration for their hard work (“Don’t you believe actors ought be paid for their work??”). It was persuasive-sounding - to many actors outside of Los Angeles, and obviously to many of the Equity Council members themselves. (The dozens of voter-suppression laws being enacted by Republican statehouses throughout the country, whose sole purpose is to deny voting rights to people who tend to vote for Democrats, are similarly outrageous, blatant, and disingenuous. And the GOP’s flagrantly false claims that what they are really trying to do is stop “voter fraud” have the same convincing ring as AEA’s claims that it is fighting for the financial rights of LA actors. Persuasive to many, sadly, but absolutely false.)

13. False, because the money that AEA pretends would be used to supply those wages does not exist. I repeat: the money is simply not there. This is, again, a fact. If you understand and accept this fact, then the argument that LA actors are foolishly fighting against the idea of being paid a minimum wage is completely unfounded, and ridiculous. Insulting, even. Since, under the terms of the longtime 99-Seat Plan, these theaters have already been barely able to survive while producing their plays, the addition of this mammoth new amount of (non-existent) money to the budget of each production will, without a doubt, mean that most of the companies would have to shut down. A few might survive another season or two at most, but only if they produce far fewer plays, with far smaller casts, with far shorter runs. AEA further came up with draconian new rules, removing all of their protections from any company that continued to operate; forbidding companies to function as not-for-profit organizations, thereby cutting off their ability to obtain grants and do effective fundraising; forbidding the formation of any new companies, thus making it impossible for future young actors, emerging from universities and acting conservatories, to form companies and start a life in the theater in Los Angeles. There is a bewilderingly punitive, spiteful, destructive nature to the entire union effort.

14. The net result would be the rapid elimination of the entire small theater culture in Los Angeles. This would be a terrible injustice, committed against not only Equity members throughout Los Angeles, but to the audiences, students, and fellow artists who attend the plays, and to the local business communities (restaurants, costume, scenery, and prop rental houses, etc.) all over the Los Angeles area that depend on the theaters involved. It would prevent actors from practicing their art and their profession while seeking paying work. It would reduce their opportunities to grow as artists, and also to be seen by agents, producers and directors who might be able to offer them paying work in larger Equity houses, or in TV and film.

15. The new set of rules was enacted by Equity unilaterally; contrary to the legal requirements agreed upon and signed in a court of law in 1987. The union spent dues-paying members’ money to mount their very elaborate spin campaign of emails, direct mailings, and phone calls promoting the new rules. They did so using lies - the idea that LA was full of “producers” and theaters that were reaping big sums of money on the backs of abused and underpaid actors; that AEA was supporting its members by demanding that they make at least minimum wage. Utterly false. Also, that there had been large numbers of LA actors calling and writing to Equity for years complaining about the harsh conditions and abusively low pay they were receiving for their work in small theaters. Another absolute lie. That eliminating all the little waiver theaters would cause the spontaneous emergence of larger, contract houses, where actors would finally be paid properly. A false and ridiculous notion, substantiated by no data or information or statistics whatsoever. Sounds good, but it’s pure baloney.

16. AEA presented to their membership only their side of the controversy. They gave no space or time or respect to the opposition - who, I repeat, are all dues-paying AEA members. The union’s language in all its communications to its members and to the public was not only full of falsehoods, but was condescending in tone, and downright rude, accusing its own paying members of being anti-union and out of touch with reality. AEA did not sit down with the Review Committee, which had been set up by the court 27 years ago with specific rules whereby they legally had to be consulted before any changes were made to the old Plan.

17. AEA staged a “non-binding” referendum vote among all eligible LA Equity members. After a huge turnout, 3 or 4 times higher than in any other Equity vote or election, the Los Angeles (dues-paying) AEA members voted NO to the new Proposal by a 66% majority. A landslide. Not even a full two days later, Actors’ Equity announced that their new Proposal (with a couple of paragraphs altered slightly, but those changes minuscule, and ultimately meaningless, in spite of the Executive Director’s claims that they had “listened” and “responded”) was In Effect. Period. Done. Game over. The union giving the big middle finger to its own members.

18. Since the actors’ own union has not only been blind and deaf to their members’ needs and concerns, completely ignoring their crystal clear voice in the 2-1 NO vote, but has actually broken the law by enacting new rules unilaterally, and has employed the most shameful campaign of misleading and outright false propaganda to muscle their agenda through, the LA actors had no choice but to file suit. Again. Whatever money is needed is being scraped together by the actors themselves. This is not anti-union behavior by any stretch of the imagination. I would probably be right to say that 100% of the Pro-99 actors, including those who are bringing the lawsuit, are entirely pro-union - unions of all kinds, including their own! Edward Asner, for one, has a lifelong history of vigorously and vociferously fighting for unions and members’ rights. Nor is it a case of actors taking leave of their senses and stupidly demanding to work for no pay, when such pay would be available to them if they just stood their ground. This is a huge number of artists demanding their simple right to practice their art. Period.

19. The thousands of actors in Los Angeles do not depend on their work in 99- (and usually far fewer) seat theaters for their livings. But they do not, because of that, want their union, to whom they pay their hard-earned dues, to force them to give up that work. Or require them to attempt to do it under terrible, constricted circumstances. It’s hard enough as it is. We are proud to be in our union; we love our union. But when our union turns against us, we will not tolerate it. If you Councillors would simply look at what the thousands of LA actors are doing, try to understand why, and then go about HELPING us do it, you would actually be accomplishing what you were elected to do. To help and support your members. Not to decide what you deem best for these ignorant, stupid people (your colleagues and friends), and force it upon them, despite their eloquently and massively expressed desire that you desist.

20. I offer you this paragraph from an article written by Hoyt Hilsman in The Huffington Post. I think he has it exactly right:“…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.”

Vincent Van Gogh starved most of his life; he sold something like three paintings in his lifetime. But he kept painting anyway, for free. He had to. What if rules and laws had been forced upon him which dictated that he would no longer have access to paints or brushes or easels or charcoal or canvases unless he were receiving minimum wage from some fictional unscrupulous gallery owner for every hour he spent sketching and painting? No sunflowers, I guess. Without pretending that all LA actors are equivalent in talent to Van Gogh, this is still exactly what we are talking about.

Artists need to do their work, whether they are paid or not. This doesn’t mean they should ever be taken advantage of, though. I wouldn’t think of working in a Broadway show for free, that charges $200 for a seat and grosses a million dollars a week. Or even in an off-off-Broadway show, that charges and grosses less, but still takes in enough to turn a profit. And I am grateful for the work Actors’ Equity, and SAG and AFTRA and the AFM and the DGA and the SSDC (and I am a member of all of them), have done over the years to enhance our pay and protect our working conditions and provide us (through money we pay in, don’t forget) with health insurance and pensions. I need and depend on my union to ensure that if I am hired by a profit-making theater, I am paid properly, and according to the agreed-upon rates and rules. I wouldn’t consider doing one of those non-union tours, where the producers actually do make a bunch of money while underpaying their actors! It’s unfair and disgraceful. I totally support my union’s efforts to help us, its members, to earn a decent living. And I don’t resent or begrudge a dime of the tens upon tens of thousands of dollars I have paid in over the last half-century to all the various artists’ unions I belong to!

But if I live in a city where there are not enough profitable theaters to sustain livelihoods for the enormous number of actors there, and I must make my living doing something else, but I still want - need - to act on the stage, and am willing to work my ass off to do so, and am willing to do that work for next to no money - then my own union has no right to tell me I cannot do it. Or say to me, as one New York actor friend of mine suggested, “If you want to work for free, why don’t you just do it in your bathroom?!” I am not stealing a paying job from another actor! I am not busting any union at all. No producer is making a dime off of me. But if my own union takes active, aggressive steps to prevent me from doing my work, under the false guise of protecting me and providing me with deserved remuneration, which simply is not there, then I must take active steps as well, to try to make my union cease and desist in those efforts. Then, my own union is working deliberately and knowingly against me; against its own members. That is the case right now with Actors’ Equity, in Los Angeles, with the 99-seat theater situation.

I encourage - no, I strenuously urge - you on the Council to truly consider the truth, the facts of this case, and see that I, and my fellow Los Angeles Equity-member actors, are simply trying to do what we must do: to act on the stage; in an environment where there are neither theaters with the money to produce even minimum-wage plays, nor producers turning any sort of profit from which they could (and therefore should) pay actors minimum wages. To continue to falsely accuse us of union-busting, of working non-union, of fighting our own union which is trying to protect us and guarantee us a living wage, of bowing down to greedy producers who are taking advantage of us, is simply to show that you aren’t hearing the truth, not recognizing what’s actually taking place, and that you’re swallowing the poisonous Kool Aid - let the little theaters die! They don’t make AEA any money, and we’re sick of administering to them! - sweetened by the sugar-coated spin: “We’re helping actors fight the unscrupulous producers; we’re providing our members with decent pay; we’re creating more contract houses; we’re saving these foolish LA-LA-land actors from themselves!” - being aggressively dispensed by the union whose MEMBERS (not the hired staff!) you were elected to hear, to listen to, to go to great effort to understand, and then to represent and stand up for. On this issue, it is apparently we, the members, who are standing up for actors, not AEA; we are trying to preserve the integrity of our own union, not trying to bring it down. This lawsuit is a painful, reluctant, but necessary measure, a last resort, a delicate and difficult undertaking, in order to move you - the people we chose to represent us - to actually represent US.

I hope each one of you will re-think this entire issue. Vote this whole new set of rules out! Get rid of it. It’s still not too late. You can still be a Council of colleagues, helping and supporting your constituents. Being, to start with, respectful, not dismissive. Being flexible, creative, and observant; perhaps drawing up one set of guidelines here, and another there, depending on the artistic landscape and the needs of the people in the different areas you serve. Those needs as expressed by THEM, not what you unilaterally decide they are, or should be. Listen, as fellow artists. Behave not like a cliché Management, sitting in an office far from the street, but as fellow Actors, who love the theater and want to continue to work in it - and not just for MONEY! Not just for “growth to contract.” But for the art of it, the love of it, the audiences for it, the history of it, the sublimity of it. That’s what it’s about. HELP us. Help us. That’s why you’re there. To represent us. You can do it. All of you. Now is the time.

For those of you who have read this far, I am grateful. And I hope you will take my words seriously, and try to proceed with something approaching a new outlook.

Yours Sincerely, and with Respect,

John Rubinstein

(proud dues-paying member of Actors’ Equity since 1965)

Comments (1)

Default user

There has been so much written over the past year or two, but this is one of the most clearly presented pieces I’ve seen. Thanks, John, for laying this out with such precision and clarity.


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