The American labor movement today is faced with two dire threats -- one from right-wing politicians like Governor Scott Walker who are out to bust them, and the other from the labor unions themselves. As a long-time union member, I am appalled to see state after Republican-led state pass "right to work" laws that strip unions of much of their power to stand up for the rights of workers. But I am also disheartened by the many instances where labor union leadership blatantly disregards the interests of their membership in pursuit of self-interest or ideological dogma.
In too many cases, union leadership is rigid and mired in the past -- Edsels in an era of Priuses - with an industrial era perspective in the Digital Age. In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the fastest-growing union with two million members, along with the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers pushed for reforms within the AFL-CIO that would focus more on organizing and addressing the needs of its members. But the AFL-CIO blocked the changes and the reformers split from the national AFL-CIO. Since then the SEIU has actively organized thousands of low-wage workers and injected new energy into the labor movement.
But still many labor unions remain out of touch with the real needs of their members. A recent example is now playing out in Los Angeles in the unlikely arena of live theater. Actors Equity, the actors union founded in 1913 with headquarters in New York, has 17,000 members in the Los Angeles area. In the 1970s, when the Los Angeles theater scene was in its infancy, the union agreed to waive some of its salary minimums and other requirements to permit small, struggling theaters to stage productions using Equity actors. Since then, Los Angeles has developed a burgeoning and diverse theater scene, with many actors launching their careers on local stages. With the abundance of local talent engaged in the film and television industry, Los Angeles theater has become fertile ground for creative entrepreneurship.
Forty years of blossoming creativity is now in jeopardy as Actors Equity has launched a proposal that would essentially gut the small theater scene, which is at the heart of L.A.'s renaissance. The proposal would require Equity members -- who are often the producers, fundraisers, set painters and generally all-around volunteer laborers in the small companies -- to be paid minimum wage for their work. Sounds good, right? But who is supposed to pay the minimum wage -- which would quickly bust the budget -- when it is the actors themselves who are supporting the company? And what happens if actors want to perform for less than minimum wage in order to express their talents? They can be sanctioned or even kicked out of the union.
None of this makes any sense and it has turned the whole concept of a labor union on its head. When a large swath of workers are actively fighting their union's efforts to shut down opportunities for work in their chosen field and to pursue their artistic dreams, something has gone seriously wrong. The idea that paying actors minimum wage is sufficient when what they really want is a shot at advancing their careers and contributing to the creative life of the community demonstrates how out of touch the Equity leadership must be. In an era where entrepreneurship and creativity are critical to the success of every endeavor, Equity's efforts to snuff out the initiative and dedication of their own members is truly bewildering.
There will be a vote of Equity members in Los Angeles later this month, but the vote is only advisory. The union's national council will make a final determination in April. It is hard to understand the motivation behind this proposal, other than to assume the union leadership are a bunch of dinosaurs living in an alternate universe. Hopefully, they will not only see the absurdity of this misguided proposal, but will also take a serious look at reforming a union that is clearly out of touch with many of its members. A union that is over a hundred years old should not put itself at risk of splitting apart, simply because of a hidebound leadership mired in the past. While the union movement across the country is in a fight for its life, the last thing it needs is for union leaders to hasten its demise.
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