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Flash News & Commentary, 4-20: New Math
Dance Company Cancels Tour After Dancers Refuse to Subsidize it

"Eviction notices are commonplace to these dancers. Some of them, even those who are ages 28, 29 and 30 are still calling home for support from their families."

-- Dancer Rep. Eleni Kallas

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

The Washington Ballet has cancelled a planned summer tour to Italy after the dancers refused to subsidize the tour by having most of their per diem expense taken out of their salaries. The dancers' union, meanwhile, has filed the second unfair labor practice complaint against the company in a little over a month, accusing it of bad faith or "surface" bargaining in negotiations over tour conditions.

Prior to the artists' overwhelming Valentine's Day vote to be represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, the Ballet had allocated each dancer $40 or about 30 Euros per day to be spent on meals and incidental expenses. AGMA began by seeking a per diem closer to to that recommended by the US State Department and endorsed by the Internal Revenue Service, currently $151 for Florence and $168 for Rome, two cities (according to the Washington Post) on the July tour. However, union executive director Alan Gordon says he told the ballet in "off-the-record" talks that the dancers would settle for a per diem of $80-$100.

The company, a spokesperson confirmed yesterday, countered by proposing to either increase the per diem to $55 -- a third of the amount recommended by the State Department -- or increase the amount to the full State Department rate but take the increase out of the dancers' salary, in effect lumping wages and per diem into what it calls a "gross payment" and effectively making dancers subsidize the tour.

Taking the the increase out of the dancers' salaries would reduce the salary to "approximately $285 per week," said company executive director Jason Palmquist -- a salary not to far from the federal poverty level. (With the tour, Washington Ballet dancers would have been on contract for 39 weeks this season, the spokesman said. Multiply $285 by 39 and you come up with $11,115. The current federal poverty level is $9,570 for a houshold of one and $12,830 for a household of two.)

While of course the dancers make more than $285 per week over the course of the year, they are still struggling to make ends meet, said Eleni Kallas, the union's DC representative. "Absolutely none of the dancers can live on the money they earn at the Ballet. Many of them live two to three (persons) in one-bedroom apts. Eviction notices are commonplace to these dancers. Some of them, even those who are ages 28, 29 and 30 are still calling home for support from their families."

On Thursday, the union filed a charge of "bad faith bargaining" against the company with the National Labor Relations Board. Last month, the union announced its intention to file an NLRB complaint accusing the company of firing two dancers for union activities, a violation of federal labor law. The company denied the dancers' contracts were not renewed because of their union activities. The new complaint alleges the company engaged in "bad faith 'surface' bargaining," or "conduct that appeared to be bargaining while, in reality, never intending to actually agree to anything," also a violation of federal labor law, says the union.

The union also accused the company of making "what appeared to be an illegal proposal" -- an apparent reference to the proposal the dancers take part of the per diem out of salary, which the union says the company pitched as allowing the dancers to avoid taxes on that amount -- and then "insist(ing) to impasse that the Union agree to" the proposal. As a remedy, the union seeks "full payment" of the wages the dancers would have earned had the tour not been cancelled.

Asked to comment on the new union charges, a spokesperson said they were "completely baseless. Moreover, it is well-known in the industry that the current leadership of AGMA utlizes the filing of charges, before the NLRB and otherwise, as well as inflammatory press releases, as a strategic tool to force ballet companies to give up their legal rights." (While the spokesperson provided the Dance Insider with a copy of Palmquist's written response to the union's latest allegations, neither Palmquist nor artistic director Septime Webre responded directly to requests for comment.)

"As far as I know," Gordon responded, "we've never filed NLRB (or any other sort of court or administrative) charges against any AGMA company, opera or dance, (so) I don't know what (the company)'s talking about. In any event, even if it were true, I'd think of it as a compliment, not a criticism."

On May 2, 2003, as previously reported by the Dance Insider, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Ballet Tech, accusing the company of violating labor law by "the partial cessation of operations without notice or bargaining with the collective bargaining representative regarding the decision or its effects." The dancers contract had been set to run through 2007. Since then, while it has been active in contract negotiations and otherwise advocating for dancer rights, the union has not filed any NLRB complaints against any dance company besides Washington Ballet, at least that it has announced.

The union subsequently negotiated a settlement with Ballet Tech and, indeed, has been at pains to point out (see accompanying article) that its relationship with Washington Ballet has been distinguished by an absence of the recognition of mutual needs that marks most of its negotiations with dance companies.

Indeed, over the past few months -- from his initial resistance to the dancers' organizing efforts, to his apparent retaliation against the dancers who lead the organizing, and now with the cancellation of the tour after the dancers' refused to subsidize its expenses from their own pockets -- Septime Webre and the administration and board of Washington Ballet have showcased ballet management at its worse, banking on the dancers' inherent love of their art and work ethic to try to get them to accept employment conditions that show a fundamental disregard for them as adult workers meriting adult compensation and professional respect. As such, management conduct has been an embarassment to and a blight on the profession and art of dance.


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