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