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Flash News, 3-11: Stand up, Get 'Fired'?
Union: Washington Ballet 'Strikes Back' at Dancer Organizers

"It's conduct unworthy of a dance company, repulsive to dancers and nothing less than disgusting."

-- Union chief Alan Gordon

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

The American Guild of Musical Artists, the principal union representing dancers in the United States, has charged the Washington Ballet with violations of the National Labor Relations Act after artistic director Septime Webre declined to renew the contracts of two dancers who were instrumental in organizing the company, which voted overwhelmingly to join the union last month. The soon-to-be released dancers, Nikkia Parish and Brian Corman, were the only company members to testify for the union in a previous National Labor Relations Board hearing that paved the way for the union vote February 14, and the only dancers who were already AGMA members, the union said.

Neither Webre nor executive director Jason Palmquist responded to Dance Insider inquiries yesterday. A company spokesperson insisted the dancers were let go for "artistic reasons," an explanation the union contested, executive director Alan Gordon calling what he characterized as "the firing" of Parish and Corman "disgusting. We represent the dancers at dozens of ballet companies and, at each of those companies, management willingly and symbiotically accords its dancers the respect and contractual protections they deserve. The Washington Ballet obviously prefers, instead, to treat its dancers as if they were Wal-Mart associates. It shows no concern for their safety, for their health, or for their problems. Apparently, it also has no concern for the protections that the law provides for them." The National Labor Relations Act explicitly prohibits retaliating against workers for union organizing.

"The Ballet's assertion that these dancers were fired for artistic reasons is mere pretext," Gordon said. "Brian had just danced a world premiere in the lead role of Trey McIntrye's 'Rite of Spring,' and Nikkia had just been asked by the ballet to dance a program at the Smithsonian and to represent the ballet as a role model for young dancers" when Webre notified them March 1 that they would not be re-engaged for the following season, the union chief added. "The real reason for firing the two dancers who testified for the union at a government hearing was to chill the free exercise of the dancers' rights and send a message to the other dancers. It's not only illegal and unconscionable, but still another example of the kind of cavalier management that led the dancers to unionize in the first place. It's conduct unworthy of a dance company, repulsive to dancers and nothing less than disgusting."

As reported in January on the Dance Insider, the union has charged Webre and the company with "inappropriate treatment" of the company's 20 artists and accused the ballet 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 fatigued." AGMA, also claimed the ballet "had further endangered dancers by manipulating work rules and through a long-standing disregard for dancers' problems." Webre has responded by accusing the union of defaming what he described as his "close and collaborative relationship" with the dancers.

AGMA President Linda Mays, a singer at the Metropolitan Opera, indicated she was not surprised at what the union has characterized as the ballet company's "striking back" at the union by firing Smith and Corman. "Although we had hoped to meet with the ballet's management in an atmosphere of mutual cooperation to appropriately address the dancers' needs for safety, professional respect and viable working conditions," she emphasized, "as labor professionals we nonetheless had to anticipate that management would viscously strike back to punish the dancers for seeking union representation."

Deborah Alton, the AGMA dance executive and counsel and herself a dancer, promised the union "will pursue each and every avenue available to us to protect the dancers of the Washington Ballet and to assure, despite the ballet's efforts to intimidate them, that they get a contract that protects their jobs and their rights. It's inconceivable to me that the Ballet's patrons will tolerate the fact Palmquist has decided to spend their donated dollars on legal fees rather than on dancers' concerns." Kay Kendall -- also a dancer -- is listed on the company's Web site as its board president.

The union says its NLRB charges, filed with the labor board's fifth region, allege that the ballet violated Section 8(a)(1), (3) and (4) of the National Labor Relations Act by firing Parish -- also the company's only female African-American member, according to AGMA -- and Corman in retaliation for testifying at an NLRB hearing and in retaliation for their union activities.

In addition to insisting that the dancers "were not fired, but rather, we chose not to renew their contracts for artistic reasons," a company spokeswoman released a statement from Palmquist saying that "the charge is completely unfounded, and we vigorously deny the allegations that the union has made. From the beginning, we have supported our dancer's (sic) right to choose whether to be represented by a union, and we continue to hope that the process of negotiating a first contract with AGMA will be a fruitful and respectful one."

Neither Webre nor Palmquist responded directly to a Dance Insider request to comment on the union's latest accusations. Readers can contact them directly at septimewebre@washingtonballet.org and/or jpalmquist@washingtonballet.org.

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