Back in 1987, L.A. stage actors sued and settled out of court with their own union, Actors Equity Association, after the union tried to shut down L.A.'s 99-Seat Theater Plan. To this West Coast “old guard,” AEA’s latest response came as no surprise.

For decades, the Plan has allowed L.A. actors to perform for less than minimum wage while still receiving union benefits like health and safety standards. In February, AEA came out with a “promulgated plan” (i.e. an edict) to to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan and require minimum wage.

Earlier this week, local membership voted by a landslide margin of 2 to 1 (2,046 to 1,075) against the union’s proposal. But on Tuesday, the union announced it was moving forward with its revised plan anyway, with only small changes.

The first warning of the union’s intent to disregard its members' “advisory referendum” came from executive director Mary McColl who, in announcing the results to the membership, chirpily warned that the union’s national council would consider “the number of people who had voted.” The implication was that the vote didn’t mean much since only 45 percent of over 6,000 distributed ballots were returned. In fact, the 2,046 voters, restricted to L.A. County, who voted down the union’s plan amounted to 50 percent of all voters in the prior nationwide union election. This means that L.A.’s unified voting bloc is massive.

Still, it was clear, as it’s been clear since last year, that the union has an agenda and will circumvent and disparage democratic procedures, and many other concerns, that stand in its way.

The union pulled out all the stops to transform what was supposed to be a gauge of its members’ views into a political campaign. It employed an army of volunteers to work phone banks on behalf of a “yes” vote for its proposal to eliminate the 99-Seat Theater Plan — ironically asking their own volunteers to campaign against the right to volunteer in L.A.’s tiniest theaters. They blanketed the membership list with “Vote yes” appeals, while rebuffing requests of its own membership to disseminate opposing views to that same list. And finally, they obfuscated the very meaning of the “yes” vote with a campaign slogan: “Yes means change; No means the status quo.”

In fact, a “yes” vote meant the elimination of the 99-Seat Plan in exchange for severely curtailed opportunities for union actors working in intimate theaters, “No” meant coming back to the table and having an open-hearted discussion of why the union regarded the popular 99-Seat Plan as so abusive, how the 99-seat plan could be improved rather than eviscerated, and why the union was killing rather than revising the plan.

“We want change, just not this change” was the slogan that emerged from the “no” camp, whose wishes and overtures to discuss alternative proposals were ignored and condescended to by union management. But finally, the Orwellian tactics blew up in the union’s face. The story went national, reported on the front page of The New York Times. Similar reports, compassionate to the Pro-99 movement, were filed on National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, CBS News and Boston’s WNTN A.M. radio.

“They’re going to ignore the vote and do what they want,” cautioned one of the original plaintiffs, Maria Gobetti, at the Stage Raw Theater Awards in mid-April. Another plaintiff, Joe Stern, closed out a community meeting hosted by L.A. Theater Network last year with the warning, “Get ready, the best we’re going to get from them is another showcase code,” referring to a highly restrictive covenant for developing new work in New York. (What AEA just served up was far worse. New York’s Showcase Code restricts seating to 99-seats; the new code for L.A. restricts seating to 50 seats and permits a tiny fraction of the budget allowed in New York.)

To be fair, after the union’s national council met in secret to discuss the implications of L.A. actors' overwhelming vote of no-confidence in the union plan, the union returned with some incremental concessions to the original, widely loathed proposal. For example, membership companies had been forbidden from adding any new members unless they were paid minimum wage. That requirement has now been waived, though all union protections have been stripped from such companies. Also, no new membership companies may now form using union members, which still sounds a death knell to L.A. theater as we know it.

Says original plaintiff Gary Grossman, “So what they’ve done is basically condensed and shortened the lifespan of the Los Angele theater. What they keep on saying, is they want to encourage the growth of L.A. theater, but everything they’re doing is just the opposite.”

Most of the union’s original, un-researched and arbitrary propositions remain in place. What’s been consistently missing from this process is any sense of serious engagement of the union with its own members, whom its policies will most directly affect. Setting policy by edict after faulty claims of “listening” and “hearing” has resulted in a crisis of confidence and trust.

Writes AEA council candidate Sid Solomon, “First and foremost, I am disappointed with the speed and opacity with which this decision was made. . . to have enacted any changes so quickly on the heels of such a resounding rejection of the original promulgated proposal only serves to deepen the perception of dismissal by the [Equity national] Council (earned or not) that many members feel. . . I hold out hope that the Council will either release the results of the vote, or make it plainly clear to the membership-at-large why secrecy was chosen over transparency.”

Unless a new generation of national councilors can transform the behavior of Actors Equity Association, and its mechanism for setting policy, the growing perception of AEA as myopic and paternalistic will continue to plague the union. This attitude is in contrast to the behaviors of a new generation of thriving labor unions, such as the janitors’ union SEIU, which eventually broke away from the bullying tactics of its parent union AFL-CIO — of which AEA is also member.

Adds Grossman, reflecting the community-wide disillusion with AEA, “It’s beholden on us, who fought for this 30 years ago, to go at it again. We’re not going to let go. This is not over. Not by a long shot.”

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