The ‘Norma Rae’ Ballet

Dancers Prevail Against Anti-Union Campaign

Volume CV, No. 4April, 2005

Alan S. Gordon

Unity is the special ingredient of the labor movement. The theatrical unions that make up COBUG – the coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds – came together in 2003, galvanized by Local 802’s strike to save minimums and live music on Broadway. In this new column, we invite members of COBUG to write about their own union’s triumphs and struggles. Alan S. Gordon is the national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA).

Unlike most of our sister COBUG unions, AGMA does not prohibit its members from working for nonunion opera or ballet companies. Likewise, because we function almost exclusively in the not-for-profit world, most of our relationships with employers are usually symbiotic rather than adversarial. Since AGMA already represents artists at most of the significant venues, we also do not actively engage in “organizing” in the traditional union sense. Rather, since our members often work in nonunion companies, other performers at those companies learn about AGMA and, from time to time, ask us to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with those companies.

Early last December, the dancers of the Washington Ballet (in Washington, D.C.) asked AGMA to represent them. The dancers had expressed concerns about inappropriate treatment by the ballet’s artistic director and the ballet’s apparent disregard for the dancers’ safety, issues traditionally addressed in AGMA dance contracts. The dancers complained about 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. They were solidly pro-union, signed representation cards, and we sought recognition.

After the ballet’s management refused to recognize AGMA, we filed a representation petition with the NLRB. In response, management informed us that it would “pursue every legal avenue available to it to resist unionization.”

A hotly contested NLRB hearing took place on Jan. 5 to determine an appropriate bargaining unit and to adjudicate management’s claim that the dancers were like “seasonal farm workers and not entitled to unionize until the next season.”

On Jan. 19, the NLRB’s regional director rejected the company’s argument and directed that an election take place among “all full- and part-time dancers employed by the Washington Ballet.”

On Feb. 14, the dancers and apprentices employed by the Washington Ballet voted overwhelmingly in an NLRB election in favor of collective bargaining representation by AGMA.

That factual report, however, tells only a part of the story, a story of a courageous group of dancers who wanted the right to self-determination and to the contractual protections that are the fundamental entitlement of all employees.

Early in my career, as a lawyer working in the Deep South for the Textile Workers Union, I had to defend blue collar workers who sought to unionize against J. P. Stevens and other aggressively anti-union employers who used every available tactic to thwart that desire. Thirty years later, I had thought that those days were well behind meā€¦until AGMA dealt with the management of the Washington Ballet.

Following the NLRB decision to hold an election, the executive director of the Washington Ballet said, “The Washington Ballet unwaveringly supports our dancers’ right to decide whether or not they want to be represented by a union.”

Despite its announced “unwavering support” for the dancers’ rights, the ballet then began a relentless campaign to “explain the facts” in an effort to coerce the dancers to refrain from joining AGMA.

Kay Kendall, the president of the ballet’s board, repeatedly told the dancers that they didn’t need AGMA representation and that unionization would destroy the company. Kendall’s fellow board members repeated Kendall’s message along with the ballet’s executive director.

Kendall, with a newfound “interest in the dancers’ troubles,” began inviting dancers, individually and in groups, to her home for dinner.

The ballet scheduled repeated compulsory meetings of the dancers, at which it pitched its “deep concern” for their welfare.

A board member wrote a long “personal” letter to the dancers, obviously drafted by the ballet’s attorneys, expressing fears about unionization, misquoting from AGMA’s constitution, misstating the facts, and misrepresenting the law.

On the morning of the election, the ballet’s artistic director wrote a self-described “heartfelt” e-mail to the dancers, telling them that “finally” the ballet was prepared to offer them better wages and better conditions, if they would only abandon their foolish effort to unionize.

In the face of this onslaught, the dancers turned to AGMA’s National Dance Executive Deborah Allton and to our local Washington representative for the truth. With their constant support, the dancers pulled together and remained united in their desire to secure their rights.

Throughout the company’s campaign, the dancers refused to become bitter and, instead, continued calmly to insist upon AGMA representation.

The NLRB conducted the election, the dancers turned out en masse, and voted overwhelmingly for AGMA.

As one of the dancers later told the press, “it was very uncomfortable for us to continuously go to management asking for things. Now, we’ve basically hired AGMA to do it for us.”

Unfortunately, immediately after the election, the ballet continued its anti-union campaign. In a move more typical of old line southern textile employers, the ballet fired two union activist dancers, the only two dancers called by AGMA to testify at the NLRB hearing, the only two dancers who were already members of AGMA from previous work at other companies.

AGMA immediately filed unfair labor practice charges against the ballet, alleging that the discharges were in retaliation for the dancers’ union activity and for their testimony, and seeking reinstatement and back pay for both.

While such vicious anti-union tactics might be commonplace among the Wal-Mart’s of America, they are rare and certainly inappropriate in the arts world.

In a culture that heavily depends upon the gifts of patrons, those patrons expect that their donations will be used on the stage, not on fattening the wallets of the company’s lawyers.

Fortunately, despite the company’s continuing attempts to intimidate them, the dancers of the Washington Ballet have pulled together and are actively working on a draft of an initial collective bargaining agreement.

Likewise, they’ve all given testimony to the NLRB in support of our charges, uncoerced by management’s attempt to punish dancers who have the nerve to tell the truth.

As in your own unions, AGMA’s membership is replete with activists who are dedicated to the concept of trade unionism, but for us it is unusual to come across a dedicated group of such very young artists who are so firm in their commitment to better their working lives and secure the rights to which they were entitled.