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View, 12-16: The Scabs who Stole Christmas
AGMA CHARGES FOUR DTH AND THREE OTHER DANCERS WITH STRIKEBREAKING
"Before you (decide)
to audition today... please reflect on the reasons we are on strike."
-- From a flyer distributed
by striking dance artists of the Dance Theatre of Harlem to potential
'replacement dancers,' in the first strike by unionized dancers
in US history, February 7, 1997*
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider
The American Guild of
Musical Artists is considering disciplinary action against four
AGMA members, all from Dance Theatre of Harlem, who it says have
crossed the picket line to take the work of dancers on strike against
Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico over economic and other conditions.
The names of the DTH dancers, along with those of three others,
were supplied to AGMA by lawyers for the striking 21 dancers of
the San Juan-based company, AGMA executive director Alan Gordon
told the Dance Insider.
As AGMA is a legitimate
representative of the Harlem dancers and so as not to unfairly tarnish
other DTH members, the Dance Insider has decided to publish the
names of the accused strikebreakers as provided by AGMA: Mark Burns,
a DTH star, as well as Naimah Willoughby, Ebony Haswell, and Dionne
Figgins. As it has been able to send an e-mail requesting comment
to the agency claiming to represent them, Elite Dance Artists, the
DI has also decided to publish two other names: Todd Fox and Bat
Udval, both of whom are listed as clients on Elite's web site, the
latter as Bat-Urdene Udval. Because of the difficulty of contacting
the seventh dancer and giving her the opportunity to respond, the
DI has decided to withhold her name at present. Comment from any
of the dancers is welcome.
As first reported by the DI, DTH has "suspended operations"
through the rest of the 2004-2005 season, effectively forcing its
dancers to look for work elsewhere. Star Caroline Rocher is reportedly
dancing with a company in Germany, while Duncan Cooper has taken
work with the touring company of "Contact."
Burns, a leading dancer
with DTH who joined the company in 1993, was with the company in
1997 when its members became the first unionized dancers in US history
to go on strike. At the time, the DTH artists set up a picket line
in front of the troupe's Harlem headquarters which successfully
forced director Arthur Mitchell to cancel auditions for "replacement
dancers." Two days after stopping the auditions, the dancers had
an agreement with DTH management -- by no means perfect, but one
that recognized their concerns, largely related to what they deemed
unhealthy working conditions.
On the picket line,
the DTH dancers were supported by approximately 100 representatives
of affiliated AFL-CIO unions. One of them, Unions for the Performing
Arts chairman Bill Hanauer, told the DTH dancers walking the picket
line that chilly February day in Harlem, "What we have here is not
only an attempt to crush union labor, but an attempt to crush artists.
Your fight is the same fight as the cotton workers, as the motion
picture editors. They may think they can replace you, but they can't
just grab someone off the street."
For the Ballet Concierto
de Puerto Rico, without the striking dancers, the "Nutcracker" the
company intends to present would be "not a professional spectacle,"
according to dancer spokesperson Aureo Andino. "It is only a student
recital, put together with students that we know and (who) have
very good potential, but at present lack the necessary technique
to carry the title of ballet professionals."
By crossing the picket
line, Burns and his colleagues are bringing the production professional
Why are the Puerto Rican
dancers on strike? An e-mail sent to company management requesting
comment bounced back, so the story presented here will be one-sided.
(The DI welcomes comments from company management.) But according
to Yamira Acevedo, the dancers' lawyer, for several weeks management
threatened to fire all 21 dancers "because of their refusal to dance
without being given explanations regarding the alleged economic
crisis affecting the company, and worse still when the company intends
to impose new unacceptable and unworthy working conditions.
the administrator of the company, affirmed in writing and in public
statements that they would be replacing the local dancers with foreign
dancers for the presentations of 'The Nutcracker.' They approached
various local dancers and several companies in the United States,
managing to recruit some dancers of the Dance Theatre of Harlem."
When it became clear
that the company was in discussions with union-represented DTH dancers,
AGMA director Gordon told the DI that the union would "seek to discipline
any member that takes struck work.... We can charge a scab with
conduct unbecoming a union member, hold a hearing, impose a fine
and sue them in court here to collect the fine. It's not something
we like to do to our own members, but strikebreaking is strikebreaking
and no one's going to tolerate it.... We've had a few calls to inquire,
and we tell dancers: If you were on strike against DTH to make a
living wage, how would you feel if they brought in dancers from
another country to replace you and beat your strike?"
Gordon also told the
Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico management, in a letter published last week in the DI, "We deplore
your efforts to import dancers from DTH to do this struck work,
and we have advised the dancers that we represent at DTH that they
may not accept work from you that was previously done by the dancers
on strike. Any dancer from DTH that works as a strikebreaker will
be disciplined by this union to the fullest extent allowed by law....
Moreover, inasmuch as the American National Labor Relations Act
applies fully in Puerto Rico, we have authorized our attorneys to
give advice and support to the attorneys representing your dancers."
Regarding the issue
which the dancers say is at the center of the dispute, Gordon pointed
out in his letter to Velazquez, "There is no question but that a
dance company should be willing to make a full and complete disclosure
of all of its financial books and records to its dancers. As you
may be aware, binding labor law requires such complete disclosure.
That your dancers are not currently represented by a union is irrelevant.
The law protects 'concerted' activity and a strike is the most obvious
form of such protected activity."
Yesterday, Gordon informed
the DI, "Perhaps your readers would like to know the names of the
(US) dancers who went to Puerto Rico to do struck work," going on
to list the dancers named above and one additional performer. "We
are in the process of determining what disciplinary actions should
be brought against the DTH AGMA members who did this."
the importance of the issues at hand to the 21 professional dancers
of the Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, when it comes to the strikebreakers,
there's a more universal and, as far as dancers are concerned, existential
issue here. If the DTH victory of seven years ago was an inspiration
to all dancers worldwide, by crossing this picket line and taking
struck work, Mark Burns and his colleague achieve the reverse --
enabling unfair working conditions for dancers everywhere. As a
dancer colleague put it to me this morning: "How can dancers achieve
any kind of equity in the world when we undercut ourselves and each
*Accounts of the 1997 DTH strike in this article are taken from
the memory of this reporter, who covered it, as well as his and
Valerie Gladstone's report in the April 1997 issue of Dance Magazine.
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