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Actors Equity Meets Franz Kafka

04/22/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

In a twist worthy of a Kafka novel, the national council of Actors Equity, the union of American stage actors, this week rammed through a proposal that would essentially rip the heart out of the Los Angeles theater scene, even though the proposal had been voted down by two-thirds of its Los Angeles voting membership.

Union wars are nothing new, but most progressives are accustomed to siding with union against management. In this case, a reactionary union leadership appears to be at war with its own progressive membership. And it looks like it's about to get a lot more vicious.

There is clearly a split between the actors who live and work in Los Angeles and those who ply their trade on stages in New York and elsewhere around the country. While New York actors largely depend on commercial Broadway and off-Broadway theater for their livelihoods, and those outside of New York work in regional theaters that are funded by local subscribers and donors, Los Angeles actors make their livings in television and film. For L.A. actors, working in theater is really about practicing their craft and developing their art, not about making a living.

The ill-conceived Equity ruling will require small theaters -- generally membership companies and other actor-run theaters that are operated on a shoestring -- to pay a minimum of $9 per hour to their actors. That sounds reasonable, and certainly stirs the hearts of long-time unionists and progressives who believe that everybody is entitled to a least a minimum wage. But, it ignores the reality that actors in L.A. aren't doing theater for the money, and a $9 an hour pittance is not worth giving up the opportunity to exercise their creative muscles in front of a live audience.

It's clearly a case of old-time labor union myopia that is completely out of place in the world of creative entrepreneurship and artistic renaissance that is taking place in L.A. While the Equity vote might be ascribed to the age-old New York-L.A. rivalry, it smacks more of a last-ditch attempt by an out-of-date, dinosaur labor union to strong arm its membership into submission. We've seen this before on a much larger scale when the progressive SEIU -- which represents janitors, hotel workers, hospital workers and other low-wage, often immigrant workers -- was bullied by the AFL-CIO, and ultimately left the ranks of traditional labor, only to become the fastest-growing, most progressive union in the country.

Actors Equity has joined the ranks of the conservative, reactionary unions against the more progressive, forward-looking elements of the labor movement. Although they are clearly on the wrong side of history, the dinosaurs of Equity won't go down without a fight. And they are about to get one. The Equity vote will certainly spawn a series of lawsuits for illegal restraint of trade by actors and their theaters, as well as litigation from actors over members' rights.

There is already movement toward forming an alternative labor union and for the decertification of Equity by the NLRB. Even more complex is the relationship between Equity and the Hollywood unions, which tend to be more progressive and forward-thinking. It is an open question whether the Hollywood unions will back Equity as it tramples on its local members' rights. And it is certainly possible that powerful leaders in the Los Angeles progressive political, entertainment and business community will use their national clout to thwart the efforts of the reactionary union leadership.

Much of this could have been avoided if Equity had actually considered the needs and wishes of its 7,000 L.A. members. There were many paths to resolution of traditional labor union policies with the preservation of the vibrant and important L.A. theater scene, but Equity apparently rejected all of them.

They seemed to be caught unaware of the fervent opposition, and went into a defensive crouch -- always a bad idea in our open and social media-driven world. Even when the wider L.A. community of critics, audiences and even government officials warned of the disastrous economic and cultural impacts of the proposal, Equity effectively closed its ears and its mind.

If Equity prevails, the ultimate loser will be the audience for theater, not only in Los Angeles, but across the country. As Broadway has become essentially a Disneyland for theater and a gentrified New York has become an increasingly harsh environment for creativity, Los Angeles has evolved as the national center of theatrical innovation. At a time when our nation more than ever is in desperate need of artists' voices, it is an irony of almost Kafka-esque proportions that it is the artists' own labor union that seeks to shut down their voices and quash their creative talents.