It’s headline news, in my world at least, that Los Angeles members of Actor’s Equity will be picketing the offices of their own union this week. While I see their point most acutely, I gotta say, I don’t like the big picture of this narrative.
Labor unions were once the backbone of American prosperity. From the 1930s to the 1980s, they created a voice for the working class, and consequently built the middle class of this country. We have the concepts of the 8-hour workday, weekends, and overtime thanks to unions. It’s a very American idea – E Pluribus Unum. “Out of many, one.”
But unions are the demons of modern day politics. Want to score political points? Bash the unions. Republicans, want to hurt the other side’s fundraising? Break a union. Democrats, want to show your independence? Slam a union. Not police or firefighters, but man those teachers unions are good pickings.
Statistically, it’s a race towards the bottom. The lowest wage states in this country are the so-called “right to work” states, where membership to a union is voluntary. Without the backing of a healthy and vocal majority of the people it represents, unions cannot effectively negotiate for better wages and better conditions for everyone.
Unions aren’t blameless. There are messaging problems, to be sure. And so often unions try to cut deals in order to be seen to be effective, deals that sell their membership short. Or worse, they simply fight the wrong fights.
That’s what this thing in LA strikes me as. The wrong fight.
There are plenty of great pieces giving the narrative over the 99-seat theatre fight, and I won’t get into it in depth. AEA had a rule in place for the last couple decades that allowed its members to perform for less-than-standard wages and no benefits in certain theatres. They are now trying to undo that deal.
But the 99-seat theatres aren’t the problem.
There isn’t enough money in theatre. That’s the problem.
The small theatres – with complete truthfulness – plead poverty. Paying even minimum wage for actors through rehearsal and performance would wreck them. It’s mathematics. With a 99-seat house, there is no way to bring in enough ticket revenue to sustain more than a two or three person show, let alone a season. Not unless tickets are $100 each.
The union should not be trying to force wages upon theatres that are clearly unsustainable. The union should instead be fighting to help make theatre funding more robust. Why isn’t the narrative about how the US spends less on culture than any other industrialized nation on earth? Why are we not fighting for local, state, and government grants to support theatre, walking arm in arm with the theatre producers themselves?
Theatre is a tradition in America. Traveling wagons would roll from town to town, putting up shows. The most famous theatrical event in American life happened, of course, in Ford’s Theatre. But we tend to ignore the fact that Lincoln was a theatre-goer. Just as it’s easy to forget that during the Great Depression the WPA put up shows and built theatres all across America. FDR understood that it isn’t enough to feed a man’s stomach, you had to feed his soul. Which is how we got the Federal Theatre Project, specifically created to both employ artists and entertain and inform the people.
For anyone arguing theatre is for old rich white people, I disagree. Theatre has become for old rich white people as funding has been choked off. The economics of the last 30 years have created a circumstance where only old rich white people can afford to attend theatre, forcing theatres to cater to that audience’s expectations.
But that’s not the history of theatre. Theatre is vital, it is where unheard voices speak. In countries where monopolies or the state control the media, theatre has been the place where truth can be spoken. Theatres are laboratories of narrative, of how a society finds out what it’s trying to say. In times of both tumult and prosperity, theatre is a magnet for the young to express themselves.
The best part of theatre is that it’s local. Just like sporting events or concerts, theatre is a shared experience. In a world more and more separated by technology, human interaction is rare, and valuable. And study after study shows that a theatre enriches the economics of the city or neighborhood where it exists. People go out for dinner beforehand, maybe shop a little while they wait for curtain time. Then they go out afterwards to discuss over drinks.
This is money the theatre itself never sees. It goes straight to the community. Local businesses should be fighting to get a theatre in their neighborhood. And the city should be helping build that theatre, enriching the community and employing the professional actors it hires.
Some cities recognize this. In Chicago, theatres like Looking Glass and Chicago Shakespeare have amazing deals with the city for their physical plant – because the city knows that these places are great tourist destinations and do more for the image and economics of the city than they cost. It is a terrific return on the investment.
But the Arts are a great place to cut funds. No one NEEDS theatre to survive. Nor music. Nor painting. The first thing that happened when the new governor of Illinois took office was that all the theatres received a letter saying that all state funding was frozen. If they had been promised money, they might get it someday. But as of now, all arts spending was halted. Basically ensuring some companies fold, thereby reducing a key component to the economy, one that gives back between five and ten times what it takes.
This is where the union should be working hand-in-glove with the theatres and producers. It should be making the argument in town halls, in state capitols, and in Congress, voicing the benefit of having professional actors and stage managers, raising the quality of theatre in America.
The American psyche can understand the difference between amateur, college, and professional sports. It should have the same understanding of community, college, and professional theatre. There are lots of talented people who don’t pursue careers in the theatre, are content to make it their hobby. It is absolutely no reflection on their talent. But it feeds into the narrative that “anyone can do it”.
For those who have made it their career, who have survived the draft and gotten the jersey, there should be an understanding of the difference. That’s what the union should be promoting, not internecine fights, but the argument of why professional theatre matters. And fighting for more professional theatres for its members to perform in.
For us union members, we don’t need convincing. We know why we get paid before the weekend of the show, because back in the day producers would run off with the box office take during the final performance. We know that we deserve our ten-minute breaks every 90 minutes. We like knowing how many hours we can be worked in a week. We like there being rules for how we are treated, and that there is a member of our union we can turn to if a director or producer crosses a line. These are all things the union does for us, and we know and appreciate them.
But every time the union ups the number of weeks an actor must have to get healthcare, or when an actor tries to work with a company only to be denied a special appearance contract, or all the other ways the union limits the chances for actors to act, it feels like the union is not for us.
The way this current fight looks is that the union is trying to stop its members from performing at the LA theatres they’ve called home for over 20 years. Fewer opportunities for them to act means more of them will have to find other work. But the union doesn’t care about the work its members do when they’re not acting. Just so long as they pay their dues. And AEA's tone has been terrible, both disingenuous and dictatorial. This is the tension between the union and its members.
For this fight, AEA has jumped on a very popular narrative – the minimum wage. I agree, every actor should at least make the minimum wage. But then I ask, where does that money come from? That’s the part the union cannot answer. Because, once again, they’re fighting the wrong fight, against the wrong enemy. The producers aren’t the enemy.
Apathy about theatre is the enemy.
Lack of funding is the enemy.
National income inequality is the enemy.
The image of union members picketing their own offices will make for great television. Famous faces on the picket lines will certainly draw attention to the fight. But it will, as is the nature of our discourse today, be without nuance. It won’t have the complexity of union reciprocity, of starvation wages for theatre staff, or decades of cuts for NEA funding.
It will demonstrate just two things: Unions are evil, and actors are unprofessional.
Neither narrative helps.
E Pluribus Unum.
(For more excellent cogitation on the issue, drop by Chris Walsh's page. He's got the goods. And links to several more stories, too)
(A fun link – I went back to look up some WPA facts and found this 1938 transcript of Hallie Flanagan, FDR’s head of the Federal Theatre Project, testifying before HUAC – the House Committee on Un-American Activities – about the nature of her program. It’s hilarious, especially when they ask if Christopher Marlowe was a communist)