A group of actors and local theatre owners have filed suit against Actors Equity seeking to overturn the union’s decision to force small legit theatres in Los Angeles to pay their actors minimum wage. The plaintiffs, including actors Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and former SAG president Ed Asner, claim the union’s minimum wage mandate will destroy local theatre.

In April, Actors’ Equity decided to scrap its 99-seat waiver policy and force small theaters in Los Angeles to pay their actors at least minimum wage – which is currently $9 an hour and going up to $10 next year. The suit claims that Equity’s mandate violates a settlement agreement that resolved a similar lawsuit back in 1989. Plaintiffs in that suit include many of those involved in the latest suit, including actress Salome Jens and theatre owners Joseph Sterns, Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny.

The ’89 settlement established a Review Committee that would be allowed to review and make recommendations on any substantial changes to the 99-seat waiver. Half of the Review Committee are members of the original lawsuit, but the latest suits says they were not consulted when the union decided to force theatre owners to pay minimum wage.

“This lawsuit became necessary because Equity refused to comply with the preliminary procedural protections built into our 1989 Settlement Agreement,” said Gary Grossman, a member of Equity and one of the plaintiffs in the 1989 litigation. “These procedural protections were designed to ensure that, before substantial changes were made to the 99-Seat Theater Plan, meaningful discussions would take place within the small theater community.”

“We would hate to see either the death of intimate theater or the world of small theater go non-union,” said actor French Stewart, another plaintiff in the case. “Equity’s decision was short-sighted and sighted and likely will contribute to an erosion of unionized acting in Los Angeles.”

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.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said that while the suit has been filed in federal court in Los Angeles, they would not serve the complaint on the union immediately “in the hope that the union would respond to their request to meet and confer about a mutually acceptable resolution of the small theater controversy.”