Los Angeles-based actors and theater owners who sued Actors’ Equity last week to stop the union from making small legit theater owners pay their actors minimum wage are undermining the union’s bargaining power, Equity said today.

The suit claims that Equity’s decision to scrap its 99-seat waiver policy and force small theaters in Los Angeles to pay their actors at least $9 an hour violates a settlement agreement that resolved a similar dispute back in 1989. The plaintiffs in the current suit include actors Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and former SAG President Ed Asner and theater owners Joseph Sterns, Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny.

actors equity logoVowing to fight the lawsuit, Equity said in a statement today that “the real victims here are the members all over the country who understand that when a single community files costly lawsuits and buys full-page ads in major newspapers to insist that they should not be paid, it has an inevitable and deleterious effect on the union’s bargaining power for the rest of its members.”

Under the union’s old 99-seat waiver plan, small-theater owners in L.A. had been allowed to operate outside the state’s minimum-wage laws, employing actors for as little as $7 a day. Actors’ Equity allowed this practice for decades on the grounds that the actors were working as “volunteers.” But the state says there is no minimum-wage exemption for stage actors – even for those who work at small, nonprofit theaters.

Under the new rules, which went into effect in April, producers who had not previously produced under the 99-seat waiver would have to pay their actors minimum wage. Those who had produced under the plan would be allowed a one-year grace period to transition to the new deal, which allows theaters with fewer than 50 seats to produce up to 16 performances of a single production budgeted under $20,000 without having to pay minimum wage. It also allows L.A. actors to collaborate as a group to self-produce theater without the requirement of an Equity contract and without having to pay minimum wage.

The plaintiffs say the new rules threaten to kill small theater in LA, but Equity says it went to great lengths to reach a compromise. “It is disappointing that this prolonged process has now resulted in what will surely be a very expensive litigation for Equity,” the union said.