‘We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!’ (Or, ‘Don’t Pay Artists!’)

If you won't pay artists -- or respect HR laws on exempt and non-exempt employees -- maybe you don't deserve our donations.

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Yes, you're worth more than $20.

Dario Fo’s We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! is a contemporary Marxist farce. In the play, the cost of living is high and growing. Wages are stagnant. Minimum wage pays for nothing. So a proletariat homemaker joins a mob of other proletariat homemakers and collectively they loot and pillage the local market out of frustration, and with glee.

Not that that could happen. After all, the paperback of the play is $264.50 on Amazon (shipping is free!).

Here’s why I want you to think about it.

In LA, in 2015, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the labor union for American actors and stage managers in the theater, tried to do away with a 99-seat theater system colloquially known as the “Equity Waiver.” As a young pup in the market back in the day, I performed in several plays and musicals in theaters that sat 99 or fewer, and I was paid with thanks, pats on the back and empty promises in lieu of money.

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Short digression: I once appeared in a production of Godspell. The Theatre of Light — in unfocused memory, I believe it was a quasi-Christian arts group that performed in a church in Hollywood — produced the show under an “Equity Waiver.” It ran for several months, mostly to packed houses. Amazing people were in this production. At the end of the run, we were thanked with a $20 check. If I weren’t broke at the time, I would have pinned it to the cork board in my living room as a sobering symbol of the LA theater scene.

When AEA put together its plan to eliminate “Equity Waiver” freebies, members sued their own union. In a nonbinding referendum, actors voted about two-to-one against being paid. Their feeling was that theaters would shutter because of the crippling nature of having to pay minimum wage. You can imagine the headline: Stockholm Syndrome Goes Hollywood.

Two years later, a judge dismissed the suit. Union actors in LA are now being paid no less than minimum wage. Well, except some of them — the nonunion some of them — for a set of reasons I have yet to comprehend. Still, given the plethora of young and unsophisticated talent in LA (I understand the movie industry makes its home there), these 99-seat houses have formed their own loose collective and are asking nonunion performers to beg to work free of charge. And yes, the kids line up like there’s no tomorrow.

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Meanwhile, up here in bluest-of-blue Seattle, “serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist” Nick Hanauer recently wrote that — guess what? — nonprofits still pay lots of people with lots of thanks, pats on the back and empty promises in lieu of money. Nonprofits also use unpaid interns as free labor when they classify employees as “exempt from overtime” (mostly by giving them such titles as “Assistant Manager of Outreach”) when they clearly don’t pass that test. I wish I could report this is news. But these practices are widespread.

This is why Washington state finally updated its overtime threshold. This is the salary, be it hourly or annual, below which overtime must be paid, regardless of exemption status. The last time the law was updated — in 1976 — it was $23,600 — which, for a full-time job, is less than minimum wage in Seattle. In 1976, 63% of workers qualified for overtime. The figure today is 7%.

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For the record — and to provide lots of flop sweat to nonprofit leaders and board members across Washington’s arts spectrum — companies must pay no less than time-and-a-half overtime to all workers making less than $675 a week ($35,100 a year) if the business employs fewer than 50 people. If the business employs more than 50 people, it’s $945 a week ($49,140 a year). Some exceptions exist, but not many apply to nonprofits.

The human resources leaders of 15 of Seattle’s largest arts organizations wrote a letter to contest the new law. In their overstepping, out-of-step, hyperbolic fervor, these managers argue that the new mandates are “unnecessary, impractical, and harmful to the arts and culture non-profit sector.”

Hmmm. Well, as these organizations are nonprofit, it’s relatively easy to find the salaries of CEOs, executive directors, managing directors, etc., on the Web. (They receive public money — that is, from you and me — after all.)

In the fiscal year that ended in June 2017, for example, the Seattle Art Museum had revenues of $38 million; its four highest-paid workers earned a total of $917,286.

The Seattle Opera, in the same fiscal year, had revenues of $43 million; its four highest-paid workers earned $866,662. In a separate letter to the state, Villar Vivé, Seattle Opera’s Human Resources Director, bemoaned that the organization is “already struggling to raise the funds” to carry out its mission. Yes, I can see that. Really struggling.

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When I was executive director of ArtsWest, we made the then-radical decision, in 2006, to pay all performers at least minimum wage for rehearsals and performances. That is, on the books — just as if they worked for us. It cost us roughly $25,000 a year on a operating budget of between $700,000 and $900,000. We made do. Yes, we may had other troubles crop up during the Great Recession, but we — board and staff — wouldn’t jettison paying that minimum wage. Volunteering is one thing; performing for an organization’s central art revenue-producer is quite another. So is working in every other part of an organization, come to think of it, especially when you’re putting in 60 to 80 hours a week.

In an earlier column on The Clyde Fitch Report, I wrote:

If your art cannot get done in the hours you have budgeted for it, you have lied. To everyone.

Here’s the corollary:

If a revenue budget cannot survive the number of paid hours required to reach the goals, then the organization itself is not viable, at least not for that budget year. No longer should artists — performing, visual, administrative — tolerate the lack of compensation.

If you’re a donor, ask your arts organization of choice whether they pay people less than a minimum wage. Also ask: Do they pay people under the table? Do they pay a “stipend”? Do they pay overtime after 40 hours, regardless of employee, as long as that employee earns less than the threshold? Are there non-exempt employees who have been told that they’re exempt?

Or does it matter? Maybe not. Artists have undervalued their own work for years, an idea that has served many producers well. But it is bass-ackwards to envision an arts world in which producers yell “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” and artists accede to that inequity.