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Flash News, 1-6: Labor Pains
Union Slams Wash. Ballet on Dancer Safety

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

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The American Guild of Musical Artists, prompted by what it says are dancer concerns, has charged Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre with "inappropriate treatment" of the troupe's 20 artists and accused the company of "apparent disregard for the dancers' safety," saying performers have complained of "a significantly large number of injuries due to haphazard, last-minute scheduling of long rehearsals, and the requirement that they dance those rehearsals full-out even though faitigued." AGMA, the principal dancers' union in the United States, also claimed the ballet "had further endangered dancers by manipulating work rules and through a long-standing disregard for dancers' problems."

The union says the dancers have asked AGMA to represent them in collective bargaining with the company but, maintains union executive director Alan Gordon, the ballet has told the union "that it intends to aggressively resist the efforts of its dancers to unionize" and executive director Jason Palmquist has refused to meet with the union. In practical terms, explains Gordon, the ballet has challenged AGMA's right to bargain for some of the employees it claims want its representation, who include, besides the 20 company dancers, a stage manager and an unspecified number of apprentices. The challenge automatically pushed the question to the National Labor Relations Board, and the dancers are expected to vote on whether they want AGMA to represent them after the NLRB issues its ruling. Gordon, meanwhile, says the company's challenge is a delaying tactic. "The whole thing is solely for the purpose of wasting time," he told the DI.

The ballet's alleged tactics have prompted AGMA national president Linda Mays to accuse the company of a "labor relations philosophy more appropriate to a southern textile company in 1965 than for not-for-profit cultural institutions in the new millennium. The Washington Ballet apparently prefers to spend tens of thousands of its patrons' dollars on legal fees rather than allowing its dancers to unionize. These dancers want what every other unionized dancer wants: The professional and financial recognition to which the beauty of their art entitles them."

In a statement issued through a company spokesman in response to the union's allegations, Webre insisted, "I'm particularly proud of the close and collaborative relationship I've enjoyed with the dancers of the Washington Ballet. We're a group of artists, working together, who have accomplished many great things over the past several years. It's unfortunate that the union has chosen to defame that relationship as a tactic to prevent a fair election."

The company also insisted, in what the spokesperson called an "official statement," that it supports its dancers' right "to decide whether or not they want to be represented by a union based on all the facts. Our nation's labor laws make it clear that the best way for employees to make this decision is though a democratic, secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. An election supervised by the Labor Board insures that no one, including the union, unlawfully interferes with employee rights."

Told of the ballet's and Webre's responses, Gordon shot back, "As to the company's official statement, we fully agree. The problem is that it's not what they really mean. First, the ballet could have stipulated to the NLRB holding an immediate election. It refused. Instead, it advised the NLRB that it wanted to go to a hearing -- presumably so that it could contest including apprentices and production staff in the bargaining unit. Then it asked for a postponement of the scheduled hearing. When the hearing was rescheduled, it sought another postponement, which was denied. Then it appealed from the denial, which was also denied. Then it moved to quash the subpoenas the NLRB issued to the dancers to have them attend the hearing, which was also denied.... AGMA told the ballet that it was prepared to proceed to an election reserving the company's right to challenge ballots from apprentices and production staff, but the company refused. Thus, we will await the NLRB decision, from which the ballet is certain to appeal. Its spokespeople know the right words, but obviously not their true meaning.

"As to Webre, if what he thinks was, in fact, accurate, the dancers wouldn't have come to us."

The Dance Insider requested, through the union, to speak to some of the dancers or get their comments via e-mail. But they were all in the NLRB hearing in Baltimore yesterday, Gordon said, and at presstime the DI had not heard back from any of them. Company dancers are invited to send their comments to paul@danceinsider.com.

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