Act One: Who Isn't for a Minimum Wage?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Last week, I told you about the off-stage drama that's consuming LA's small theaters. How the actors’ union, Actors’ Equity, is proposing some radical changes to what's known as the 99-seat plan: the plan that governs work done by union actors in LA's small theaters.

In a nutshell, the union's proposed changes would seem to be as simple as a battle for minimum wage. That's how Equity is marketing it and on the surface, who isn't for minimum wage?

And therein lies the insidiously deceptive power of the union's argument.

Like a classic fairy tale, we are able to immediately conjure up our villains and heroes. Clearly, this must be a union fight between an evil, rich employer and a poor unprotected, coerced worker. Our mind fills with news stories of Walmart workers or the McDonald's fry guy picketing the drive through. Or the even more Piketty-ian reality of income inequality, the 99% and offshore profits. It becomes a dystopian nightmare of art versus greed. It's brilliant emotional theater because it short circuits complex thought and defaults to red and blue, good and evil. Before we've even had a chance to think we've chosen sides because, after all, who isn't for a minimum wage, right?

But to really understand what's going on, and the unfortunate complexities of LA theater, we need to dig a little further. Here are some of the basics:

For starters, the 'us and them' of this battle is a little trickier than you might imagine. In your typical union fight, the 'us' is the workers and the 'them' is the 'employer'. In theatrical terms, you'd translate that to actors versus producers. But remember the lawsuit from the 80's that conjured up the current plan was a group of union actors suing their own union.

This isn't a contract dispute with producers, this is actors versus actors -- or said less charitably, actors versus the actors’ union.

So why would a union fight its own members? Now forgive my hypocrisy of reducing a complicated problem to a reductive sound bite but, in a nutshell: because the union isn't making any money.

Like any union, Equity funds itself off of union dues and if the actors aren't making money neither is the union. While we can argue whether the 'exposure' of doing a 99-seat show is good for an actor that 'exposure' is surely not a good thing for the union. In fact, it's something of a bureaucratic nightmare.

Imagine you've got hundreds of underfunded productions happening in converted storefronts and warehouses across the sprawl of Los Angeles, and it's your job to protect and police those productions. You aren't getting paid a dime and, to make matters worse, you've got a national membership breathing down your neck wondering why the kids in LA work for free. You'd want to shut the thing down, too.

That's what makes the union such a dangerous negotiator: they lose nothing if all 99-seat theater simply disappears. In fact, it makes their life easier.

As they say, it's easy to gamble when you've got nothing to lose.

Next week, thinking about LA theater environmentally rather than economically and why, even if you’ve never seen a 99 seat show, you should care about this poverty of vision.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.