The Referendum, and its Discontents
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Here’s another allegorical anecdote from my Hollywood homeowners association, which has been the cause of decades of exasperation on my part, including my battle with them to keep a pet chicken inside my own apartment. But this isn’t about a chicken, it’s about ignoring the results of an election, which is why I choose it as parallel to L.A. theater’s current stand-off with the actors and stage managers union, Actors Equity Association. More on that further down.
I’ve owned my apartment in a 12-unit building for almost as long as the 99-Seat Plan has been around. I bought it during a fire sale long before L.A. rentals and home prices went off the charts. During most of my tenure there, I’ve served as an elected official on the homeowners association board, either as president, vice-president, or secretary. My goal has always been to keep in check other board members who have a penchant for unilateral action, as though the building is theirs rather than ours. I’m a stickler for due process and compliance with the state and federal laws that govern HOA boards, to ensure that all owners are fairly represented. On one level, my fellow board members have been eager for my counsel. On another, they regard me as pain in the ass and would throw a huge party if I ever announced I was selling out, and moving on. As one indication of my perverse side, this realization pleases me no end. To quote my late father, “I love all of humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.”
In 2014, I served as board secretary, having received a tie vote with another candidate. Our rules and regulations do not limit the number of officers who may serve on the board, so both tie-voted candidates joined the board.
In April, 2015, I did not attend the annual election, nor did I cast a vote for anyone, including myself, or any proposed policy. (I was dealing with a family crisis at the time.) The day following the election, the president sent a celebratory email in the minutes of the meeting, declaring that he had been re-elected by an 11/0 margin, announcing the two new board members (I wasn’t among them), and that a number of restrictive new rules had been adopted.
The following day, I received a phone call from an irate-co-owner who was present at the meeting. She told me of two election irregularities. One new owner had not voted for any of the board candidates because he didn’t know them, or what they stood for. With my own abstention, that left the total possible tally for the board at 10 out of a possible 12. So the president’s “11/0” victory was a mathematical impossibility that cast doubt on the entire tabulation process. Far worse, my neighbor said, I had actually been re-elected to the board in a tie vote, as in 2014. However, in my absence, the president quickly scuttled that result and mentioned very quietly that since I wasn’t present, the other candidate should serve on the board instead of me, rather than alongside me.
The following day, I was beeped by my friendly neighbor into a conference call between the president and two other owners. The president wasn’t aware that I was listening to him defend his action with a series of ad hominem attacks against me (something I’m getting used to these days). The president shouted that my neighbors’ alliance and I were an “older generation, radical, marginal fringe.” (L.A. thespians: Sound familiar?) I replied to him that the measure of validity here is not the president’s opinion of anybody, but the number of votes received.
The president was intransigent in his conviction and proceeded (with his new board) to enforce the new rules, the proposed fee increases and a sizable special assessment.
That’s when I discovered that in California State law, in legislation called the David-Stirling Act, every HOA is required to have external election rules (which our HOA never had) in order to curb these kinds of election irregularities, including how to count votes and resolve ties. Furthermore, I learned, the law actually encourages disgruntled owners to sue HOAs for policies set in the absence of such election rules. In case after case, judges invalidated elections and all the policies set by any HOA board that was elected without external election rules in place – as ours had been. I explained all this to the newly elected board. I advised them to hire an attorney to draft a set of external election rules that were consistent with the HOA’s rules and regulations, and then re-do the election, and all that was voted on that day, from scratch, in order to be in compliance with State law.
The next thing I heard, the president had, by himself (without any discussion with most of his co-owners), hired an attorney on the HOA’s dime to draft external election rules for the building. When my neighbors-in-alliance challenged his right to take such a major action unilaterally, in the wake of an accusation that his own election was illegitimate, he asked us all not to write to him anymore, and that we should address our concerns to his newly hired HOA attorney.
That’s what we did. The attorney summonsed the election materials from the board. Shortly after, I received a cordial letter from said attorney inviting me back onto the board. In other words, these clowns hired an attorney for over $300/hour, for him to tell them that they needed to obey the law (and the law of common sense), which is all that the “radical, marginal fringe” was telling them throughout the farce. Such is the folly of ignoring something as remedially clear as an election result. Such is the power of a lawsuit, or the threat of one, to remedy abuse of power.
Whether or not to take such action is the question facing members of the national actors and stage managers union (Actors Equity Association) in a standoff with their own union.
I spoke at some length with the wise Rebecca Metz over the weekend. (The interview will appear early July in http://thisstage.la.) Metz, a local actress and member Actors Equity Association, has been in constant contact with her union’s top officials, including Executive Director Mary McColl and newly elected president Kate Shindle, regarding Equity’s proposed changes for L.A. theater.
According to Metz (an associate member of Sacred Fools Theater Company who received Stage Raw’s Queen of the Angels Award in April for her leadership in the “Pro-99” movement, defending L.A.’s intimate theaters), the union intends implementing its new plan next year, and then plans to work out the kinks from there.
There is no evidence that the new plan will help anybody, or result in contract work, which is among the union’s stated goals. There is ample evidence, freely available from San Francisco and Chicago, that AEA’s policies have bifurcated a handful of larger union theaters and a swath of smaller non-union houses (in which union actors are banned from performing). Also among the union’s stated goals is to bring L.A. into compliance with those cities.
Its new plan effectively eliminates the availability of the 99-Seat Plan in Los Angeles, a plan that has permitted union actors to work on L.A.’s intimate theaters for stipends and with union protections, for over a quarter century. Defying the clearly-expressed wishes of its local membership, the union insists that its actors must now work for at least minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, or – with a few exceptions — not at all. This is a financial model that will compel most of L.A.’s scores of intimate theaters to go non-union, or to close their doors.
In an “advisory referendum” held earlier this year, local membership representing a whopping 40% of the national turnout in the subsequent national election, voted to reject the union’s heavily lobbied plan by a 2-1 margin. That clarion “advice” was itself rejected by the union’s National Council of 80 representatives, which passed the union’s plan anyway, with incremental changes and additions.
“They’re not interested at all in talking about the process that got us here, whether or not is was fair or smart or productive. They’re at the point of, ‘This is what council passed,’” Metz reported.
Metz doesn’t agree with her union on this point, but she believes in continual, open communication, working with the aim of slowly changing the union’s perspective, i.e. working for change through the union’s internal processes. It’s “silly” to believe that the union’s plan will be fixed in stone, Metz says. “Everything changes eventually. It’s just a question of where and when.”
I wish I could embrace Metz’s Gandhi-like perspective, and to some degree, I do – not so much an embrace as an extended arm that acknowledges the historical wisdom of her approach. Partly. The firebrand in me is still a stickler for due process. Even if the national council vote complied with the union’s internal rules, the result was, mathematically, a blazingly vulgar illustration of taxation (union dues) without representation, which is not only unjust, it may well be a violation of federal laws that govern labor unions.
To every thing turn, turn, turn. There is a season . . . and a time to every purpose under Heaven. When is the time to turn the other cheek, and when, before it’s too late, is the time to bring in the lawyers?