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Flash Report & Letter, 1-13: Enter, Kaiser?
Dancers to WashBallet: No Fair Contract, No Company

From Alan Gordon
Executive Director, American Guild of Musical Artists

WASHINGTON -- Following another bargaining session on January 12 in which no meaningful progress was made toward resolving the stalled negotiations between the Washington Ballet and its dancers, and with the dancers still prevented from returning to work "at least until April," the dancers have appealed directly to the Ballet's board of directors.

In a letter dated January 12, from the American Guild of Musical Artists, AFL-CIO to Frank Loy, board treasurer and former US under secretary of state for global affairs, the dancers expressed their collective determination that the Washington Ballet "will exist as an AGMA signatory with a collective bargaining agreement that protects the core needs of the dancers and of the company, or it will not exist at all."

The letter made three proposals to the board: "First, we think it imperative that the entire board meet with the dancers and participate in the bargaining process so that each member of the board can see, first hand, what is going on. Second, we think it imperative that the board agree to the concept of a neutral, third-party arbitrator having the authority to determine the bona fides of artistic decisions as they relate to the tenure of employment of the dancers. That concept exists in every AGMA dance contract at every other successful ballet company and would not unreasonably 'fetter' any WB decisions. Third, we think it's time for the board to accept Michael Kaiser's generous offer to become involved as a mediator. Both sides respect him and his long-established expertise in the performing arts and in collective bargaining, and I assume that the board would appropriately give serious consideration to his suggestions."

Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, indicated a willingness to become involved to mediate the ongoing labor dispute. AGMA accepted the offer but the Ballet's lawyer refused.

The letter, sent by overnight delivery to Loy with copies to each of the board's members at their home addresses, set forth the dancers' position as to what it would take to reach a mutually beneficial collective bargaining agreement: "First, respect the dancers enough to let management bargain with them without a lawyer with an anti-union reputation calling the shots. Second, understand and address their real needs. Third, protect them and their jobs against arbitrary, capricious and vindictive retaliation. Fourth, bargain reasonably, not antagonistically."

The next negotiating session is scheduled for Thursday, January 19, which gives board members a week to consider the dancers' letter before its negotiators next meeting with the union and the dancers.

Text of letter follows:

January 12, 2006

Frank Loy
Treasurer
Board of Directors
The Washington Ballet

Dear Mr. Loy:

Despite the fact that we do not know each other, please grant me the courtesy of reading the following letter in its entirety, because it seems clear to me, from the statement that you read to the dancers on January 3, that neither you, nor (board chair) Ms. Kendall, nor the board itself, have either a complete or an accurate understanding of what is, and has been, transpiring at the negotiations toward a contract between the dancers and (Washington Ballet).

Ultimately, I think you would agree, there are only two possible outcomes: The Washington Ballet will exist as an AGMA signatory with a collective bargaining agreement that protects the core needs of the dancers and of the Company, or it will not exist at all. You and I, however unlikely it may now appear to you, share the same goal: that the Washington Ballet should continue to exist as a healthy and viable company. To reach that goal, I believe that you and your fellow board members need to accord both AGMA and the dancers the opportunity of telling you all, directly, why the negotiating process has broken down.

As you know, the dancers believe that actions of your 'negotiating team' have been part of a choreographed effort to give the appearance of bargaining in good faith while, in reality, never intending to agree to anything more than their original manner of treating the dancers, the treatment that drove the dancers to unionize in the first place.

I agree with that analysis. Although I believe that (executive director) Jason Palmquist is an honorable man, and that he would be able to negotiate an agreement that was mutually beneficial to the dancers and to the Ballet, I think that the negotiations have thus far failed because of your attorney, Larry Levien.

Larry's conduct throughout the negotiations has been, correctly I believe, perceived by the dancers as being contemptuous of them and their needs, as cavalier and dismissive of their artistry, and as disrespectful to them as dancers, as people, as union members and as employees. As you are certainly aware, that is Levien's reputation and it is obviously well-deserved. As you may not know, it was principally Levien's personal and unmistakable contempt for the dancers that led to the cancellation of your tour to Italy.

It is inescapably clear that Larry is in charge of the negotiations, that Jason is nothing more than a figurehead, and that the entire negotiating process has been thus far orchestrated pursuant to Larry's well-developed skill at undermining effective union representation. In this instance, however, it's going to undermine the viability of the Ballet.

Let me tell you why this is the wrong approach: In your presentation of January 3, you said there were "a few points we think are central to a successful ballet company, including the ability of the artistic director to make unfettered decisions on matters that are central to the character and quality of the Company."

I assume you would admit that the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Atlanta Ballet, Ballet Hispanico, BalletMet, Ballet San Jose, Ballet West, Boston Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet and San Francisco Ballet are "successful ballet companies," yet every single one of them operates successfully under a collective bargaining agreement similar (with one exception, discussed below) to the one your dancers have proposed.

Every single one of them operates successfully under a collective bargaining agreement with the health and safety guarantees and the restrictions on the prerogatives of their artistic directors that are similar if not identical to the ones your dancers have proposed. Every single one of them operates successfully under a collective bargaining agreement with arbitration provisions and other job protections that are similar, if not identical, to the ones your dancers have proposed.

The one area in which your dancers have made a proposal that does go beyond every other collective bargaining agreement has to do with protecting their own individual jobs from capricious, vindictive, and unwarranted retaliation from (artistic director) Septime Webre. And while the reach of their proposal is unique to the Washington Ballet, only the Washington Ballet, alone among all other major dance companies, has fired dancers for their union activities, has had an NLRB Complaint issued against it for firing dancers because of union activity or has ever resisted unionization with the viciousness that is the hallmark of these negotiations. I know that you, in actuality or of necessity, must deny that it did not, but the facts are what they are, and they taint the entire bargaining process. The dancers' principal goal is nothing more than protection against Septime Webre's arbitrary decisions about them, decisions which he would claim are artistic but which dancers suspect, with good cause, would be malicious.

Apart from that one exception, however, nothing the dancers have asked for goes beyond what is standard, customary and demonstrably symbiotic at every other significant dance company in the United States. Since that is undeniably true, the reason for the failure of negotiations has to lie elsewhere and we think it lies with the approach to negotiations planned and undertaken by Larry Levien.

Despite the Ballet's continuing denial, in point of fact, the dancers have never been on strike. They were, plainly and simply, locked out. They were locked out of rehearsals on December 13 and 14, they were locked out of the Warner Theater (as the chained theater doors established) and they have been locked out ever since. (Despite) that the board may have had fiscal concerns in taking these actions, the actions nonetheless constitute a lock out.

The dancers, and AGMA, did everything possible to avoid an interruption of "Nutcracker." Despite whatever you may have been told to the contrary, Jason Palmquist repeatedly refused to meet with us prior to either the Thursday or Friday cancellation of the "Nutcracker" performances, refused to discuss the situation with us verbally, refused to address any of the dancers' core needs and, in fact, it appears, merely played out the cards in the manner obviously previously determined by Mr. Levien.

The dancers had proposed a simple, minimal, plain English two-page interim agreement that would protect their basic needs while negotiations continued on the overall contract. The dancers proposed a minimum size for the Ballet, not to limit student participation or to put other restraints on the Company, but to assure that dancers in too small a company would not be required to perform exhausting multiple roles and expose themselves further to injury. In response, dancers got a draft from Levien of a complex four-year agreement, triple the size of theirs, one which did not address any of their real needs in any meaningful way. In fact, although dancers and AGMA were available to meet with (Washington Ballet) (WB) over that weekend in a continuing effort to resolve this situation, WB precipitously and unnecessarily cancelled the entire run, although it is obvious to each and every one of the dancers (and to the public) that there was every possibility of reaching an agreement and saving the production.

It may be true, as your board has suggested, that WB unilaterally implemented what they've called a "comprehensive health and wellness program." But it's also true that the program was, in fact, too short-lived to be really effective in addressing the scheduling and performance problems that were causing the injuries. It's not true, contrary to the claims of WB's public relations company, that the injuries WB's dancers are continuing to sustain are within the industry average. In fact, injuries normally occur to somewhere between 8-10% of dancers at any ballet companies, but at WB fully 20% of the dancers are injured, due principally to the fact that reasonable limits have not yet been contractually imposed upon what the artistic director can force dancers to do.

As you are also aware, the failure of these negotiations has never been about money. What drove the dancers to unionize and seek a binding contract was, and remains, the way in which they have been scheduled, the disrespect with which they are treated, the injuries they continue to suffer, the guarantees they need to survive, and the disregard of their rights. Did this have to happen? To quote you: "No, it didn't." But it will continue until the dancers' real needs are addressed in a sympathetic and symbiotic manner, until WB joins the rest of the ballet community in recognizing that its dancers, and their chosen representatives, are its partners, rather than its enemies, until the board recognizes that its dancers are highly trained and extraordinarily skilled professional performing artists, and employees, and treats them accordingly and not as children or students or chattel subject to an artistic director's "unfettered decisions."

We do not believe that successful negotiation can occur or that a mutually advantageous solution can be found until the 'facts' that the board has available come to it from the dancers themselves, rather than from reports by Mr. Levien.

The board apparently believes that AGMA's approach has been 'take it or leave it.' In fact, that's false. AGMA was constantly and continuously available to negotiate, prior to and after the "Nutcracker" cancellation, but it was Levien who imposed several 'take it or leave it' deadlines and ultimatums before you cancelled, without need or justification, the entire run.

If, in fact, the board's instructions have been to "bargain in good faith, try to reach an agreement, take into account to the extent possible the dancers' needs," then it's obvious to the dancers, to AGMA, to the entire ballet community and to the press that Mr. Levien has not gotten the message. His tactics, demeanor and contempt for the dancers are clearly out of place and inappropriate in the negotiation of a not-for-profit collective bargaining agreement.

If the board truly wants to save the Washington Ballet, the dancers urge it to adopt four actions: First, respect the dancers enough to let management bargain with them without a lawyer with an anti-union reputation calling the shots. Second, understand and address their real needs. Third, protect them and their jobs against arbitrary, capricious and vindictive retaliation. Fourth, bargain reasonably, not antagonistically.

Inasmuch as you mentioned me by name in your January 3 presentation, I think it important to point out to you that I have personally done everything available to me to assure that it was neither the dancers nor AGMA that were the obstacle in the negotiating process: I have variously assigned four different key negotiators, so as to make certain that it was not anyone's individual style that was causing a problem. I suggested to Jason that the company and AGMA meet without lawyers, so that it was not spurious legal considerations causing the problem. I've even suggested that the contract be negotiated between one of your hands-on artistic personnel and one of our staff dancers, so that nothing but core ballet issues could be addressed. Nothing worked, and thus we are left with the conclusion that the breakdown in negotiations rests squarely upon the Company's shoulders.

The dancers want to believe that the board of the Washington Ballet is truly committed to achieving a workable collective bargaining agreement. But to evince that belief it should be obvious to you that an unmistakable show of faith is necessary to get the bargaining process back on track. Towards that end, we propose three things: First, we think it imperative that the entire board meet with the dancers and participate in the bargaining process so that each member of the board can see, first hand, what is going on. Second, we think it imperative that the board agree to the concept of a neutral, third-party arbitrator having the authority to determine the bona fides of artistic decisions as they relate to the tenure of employment of the dancers. That concept exists in every AGMA dance contract at every other successful ballet company and would not unreasonably 'fetter' any WB decisions.

Third, we think its time for the board to accept Michael Kaiser's generous offer to become involved as a mediator. Both sides respect him and his long-established expertise in the performing arts and in collective bargaining, and I assume that the board would appropriately give serious consideration to his suggestions.

The dancers of the Washington Ballet are the Washington Ballet. Notwithstanding any preconceptions you might have, they invite you and all of your board members to meet with them and work together to save the Ballet, recognizing their determination that the Washington Ballet will exist as an AGMA signatory with a collective bargaining agreement that protects the core needs of the dancers, or it will not exist at all.

Cordially,

Alan S. Gordon
Executive Director
American Guild of Musical Artists, AFL-CIO

 
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