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Flash View, 4-20: Frontline, Washington
A Battle Against Oppression for Dancers Everywhere

By Alan Gordon
Executive Director, American Guild of Musical Artists
Questions posed by Paul Ben-Itzak

How would you characterize the situation at Washington Ballet, specifically as goes to what to you seems management's understanding of workers' rights and labor law, and how it views its dancer-employees?

I think the problem at the Washington Ballet flows initially from what might be characterized as the 'culture' of ballet: Treating dancers as if they were both children and students (the ballet 'master,' taking 'class,' constant criticism and correction, etcetera) as opposed to employees with rights. This culture inherently involves a 'we know better than them' attitude among ballet company founders and patrons and among both executive and artistic management. Thus, when dancers become or want to become self-empowered, there's a natural resistance from all of those 'bosses,' who feel that the dancers are unqualified and ungrateful. To a significant extent, this also translates into an anti-union attitude, because an effort to become self-empowered often leads to an attempt to unionize.

With regard to Washington, the board chairman Kay Kendall and the artistic director Septime Webre demonstrate all of these attributes. Before the dancers unionized, management could fully participate in the culture of telling them what to do without being questioned or seriously opposed. Thus, when we sought to represent the dancers, Kendall and Webre instinctively resisted. Since (executive director Jason) Palmquist was new, and clearly unequal to either of them, he was unable to effectively counterbalance that opposition. Wanting (as all of us do) to keep his new job, Palmquist viewed their attempts at unionization as a 'problem' rather than as an opportunity to identify with and help the dancers.

Since some of the Ballet's board members/patrons are from big dollar DC law firms that represent management as opposed to labor, Kendall turned to them for help. Since Kendall was calling the shots, her lawyers dealt with the dancers as if they were blue-collar workers, resulting in the kind of poisoned atmosphere that now prevails.

At most ballet companies, it is the executive director who determines the labor relations policy and the negotiating posture, and then has the lawyers implement it. From the start of the DC negotiations, however, it was clear that Kendall's lawyers were creating the policy and instructing Palmquist to implement it. That can't work. For the Washington Ballet to step into the 21st century, the board has to realize that the dancers have, in fact, become self- empowered and are entitled, as a matter of right and as a matter of law, to be full partners in determining their working conditions and wages.

Eventually, (hopefully) the Ballet will realize that the money its patron's donate must go on the stage and not into the pockets of its lawyers. Once that occurs, a rational labor relations policy will flow as a matter of course.

Can you contextualize the situation at Washington Ballet -- again particularly as pertains to management's understanding of and disposition towards labor law, and its posture in negotiations -- in terms of what you understand as the overall situation in management-labor negotiations in dance today? In other words, how unusual is the Washington Ballet management's attitude and how unusual are its actions?

Although the ballet 'culture' continues at every ballet company in terms of 'artistic' decisions, every major unionized company recognizes that such a culture is inconsistent with making 'management' type decisions, and all such AGMA companies accord their dancers a full role in planning and effectuating non-artistic conditions of employment. At New York City Ballet, for example, contract negotiations start and conclude rapidly, are structured on a problem-solving paradigm, and address the needs of both the dancers and of the Ballet. After negotiations are over, the dancers continue to play an active, day-to-day role in balancing the needs of the Ballet and the needs of the dancers. Underpinning all of our ballet contracts is the notion that what's good for the dancers can't be good unless it's also good for the Ballet, and what's good for the Ballet can't really be good unless its also good for the dancers.

That concept is what's missing at the Washington Ballet. Some years ago, when AGMA was something less than an effective and responsive union, the Washington dancers tried to organize, many were fired, and the (organizing) effort failed. Against that background, the leadership of the 'new' and reinvigorated AGMA understands that we must be aggressively litigious in situations such as this, filing lawsuits and administrative charges every single time there's a valid reason, to make absolutely certain that we support the dancers as skillfully and as creatively as we can, so that their efforts can succeed. We see this as a battle against oppression, not just for the 20 dancers in Washington but for dancers everywhere. If these 20 dancers can successfully take control of their professional lives, so can other dancers. We commit the union's treasury to this struggle, because representing dancers is our core business. The Ballet can not commit its treasury to fighting us, because its core business is presenting dance. Each NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) or court victory is another step in forcing the Ballet to recognize that truth. Once it does, the Washington Ballet can take its place among other enlightened producers.

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