There’s a new wrinkle in the minimum wage debate and it’s playing out on-stage.
Los Angeles is home to thousands of union actors working in the city’s small theater scene. They don’t earn much and that’s just fine with them as their reward is the experience and skills they’re gaining. In a public show of force they are saying no to the state’s minimum wage hike.
Actor’s Equity union represents actors who work in small and community theaters – those with 99 seats or fewer. The union has jumped at the chance to add its voice in support for higher minimum wages. However, a majority of its members disagree. They say that California’s $9 per hour minimum wage would cause them to lose their gigs, because the theaters just couldn’t afford it.
These aren’t headliners or big name celebrities but actors, stage hands and crews who perform for as much as $7 per performance but are hoping to hone their craft and possibly catch the eye of an agent or manager. They consider their work continuing education in addition to employment. They also enjoy the flexibility of being able to act, write, contribute to multiple projects, and perhaps hold down jobs elsewhere.
Taking time out of their schedules, these actors are showing fierce opposition to a minimum wage hike that might put them out of work by picketing the union's North Hollywood offices, flooding a town-hall meeting, and holding debates online. Some have threatened to resign their membership.
These actors and aspiring actors have done the math. They know that $9 per hour will put many of them out of work very quickly. For small stages that struggle to keep the curtains up by fundraising and ticket sales, paying low stipends keeps the curtain going up. Legally, they’ve been allowed to do this following a settlement decades ago between unions and actors in Los Angeles County so long as ticket prices remain low and production runs remain short. Apparently, these theaters are thriving.
Why then does the union want to change what will undoubtedly be detrimental to thousands of its members and the world of small theatres? Probably greed.
Actors' Equity, the national union that represents Ms. Odell and about 6,500 other stage performers in Los Angeles, says its members are selling themselves short. The union, seizing a moment when organized labor is having some success pressuring low-wage employers to pay higher salaries, says many of this city's small theaters — which currently pay actors nothing for rehearsals, and stipends as low as $7 per performance — should start paying California's minimum wage of $9 an hour.
But the union's effort to help boost actors' pay has prompted a vociferous backlash from its members, many of whom fear that higher pay will cause many theaters to disappear. In a nonbinding referendum conducted over the last several weeks, 66 percent of Equity members in Los Angeles voted against a mandatory minimum wage for small theaters.
"You want to be up onstage, you want to work out the acting muscles, not sitting on your couch waiting for an audition," said Tim Robbins, the Academy Award winning actor who, despite a high-profile Hollywood career, continues to run a small theater here called The Actors' Gang, and is a prominent advocate for small theaters less fortunate than his. "The only reason I was able to move into writing and directing movies and remain sane in this business has been my access to doing challenging work and testing myself in small theater."
The actors defend the minimal payment for small theater work by saying that Los Angeles is not like the rest of the country: There is a huge population of performers looking for exposure, relatively low levels of philanthropic and governmental support for theater, and a consensus that the place to make money in acting here is in film and television. One indication of how distinctive the Los Angeles theater scene is: the highly regarded Antaeus Theater Company has for years formed two full casts for each of its productions, knowing that at any point an actor might have to skip a performance to tape a television episode or audition for a film.
The union points out that there are small theaters in other parts of the country that pay union actors more than a stipend. And, the union says, even in Los Angeles some of the small theaters pay musicians, publicists, box office workers — just not actors.
What we have are workers who are smart enough to realize that their industry is unique and that one-sized-fits-all policies such as raising state’s minimum wage will have a real and painful impact on their careers.
Imagine if every company that recruits interns were forced by law to pay them (as many politicians advocate)? Many young people would lose valuable opportunities to gain insight, experiences, connections and skills in fields that they desire entering. It’s not too different in this case.
This is also a reminder that low wages are not lifetime sentences. Workers earn low wages because they possess few or no skills. These are jobs that are meant to get them started and they move on from there. The majority of minimum wage workers are young people who are building much-needed skills – not those supporting families as is often the picture painted by progressives and politicians.
These actors are right to push back. It’s their careers and livelihoods that are stake.