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Eighty-eight years later February 12, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Dance, Labor, Theater.

My screenplay Equity is about the blacklisting and retribution that faced actors who struck the Broadway theater managers in 1919 in support of the Actors Equity Association.

Gee, I’m sure glad that kind of thing doesn’t happen any more …

For the dancers of the Washington Ballet, procuring a union contract was never about getting more money or benefits. This 20-member dance company had something more important in mind when they signed the petition to join the American Guild of Musical Artists—protecting their bodies and their careers, and getting the kind of respect due to professionally trained artists.

Excessive Rehearsals Caused Injuries

Bone-crunching rehearsals and performance schedule were resulting in the kinds of injuries that far exceeded the normal sprains and bruises associated with professional dancing.

“These were not normal, everyday injuries,” explains Nikkia Parish, a senior dancer and supporter of the union. These injuries were a result of working too hard for extended periods without rest. “It’s just not possible for anyone, not even a machine, to work that way without proper care and rest.”

For a professional ballet dancer, the types of injuries occurring among the dancers at the Washington Ballet could not only end a season, they could easily end a career.

Parish and the other dancers needed a way to get the kind of professional respect that would allow them to incorporate breaks and rest into the schedule without getting themselves labeled “troublemakers.” To get respect on the job, they sought union representation.

The Dancers Form a Union

Getting recognition for their union did not come easy, even though 19 out of the 20 dancers in the company signed a petition to join the union in December 2004.

Management refused to recognize their union, demanding a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election and seeking extended delays throughout the process. The usual hearings were held in which management sought exclusions for both apprentices and regular company dancers they tried to label “supervisory,” and an election was scheduled for February 2005.

Management Attempts to Stop Dancers From Having a Voice

Management did not want to see the ballet go union. According to Parish, the employer conducted almost daily mandatory meetings about the union during work time for both individuals and the entire staff.

From the time the dancers requested recognition through the time the NLRB election was held, the atmosphere on the job became increasingly hostile, and meetings began to get “very heated,” according to Parish.

Management also made personal phone calls to workers and distributed materials intended to sway votes away from the union.

The tactics didn’t work, and dancers voted 18–2 for union representation.

Shortly after the election, and after every other dancer was given their contract offer, an injured Parish was told that she would not be re-engaged for the next season.

Parish believed she was being punished for her union support and that “there should be penalties for that.”

Technically, there are penalties for that, but none strong enough to prevent employer abuse in the first place.

The Employee Free Choice Act would change that. It provides for harsher penalties for employers who break the rules. More importantly, it makes it possible for workers who demonstrate majority support for the union to get recognition without going through an election process that exposes workers to employer strong-arm tactics.

Parish has since settled the government’s case against the Washington Ballet for refusing to re-employ her. Meanwhile, after a year of negotiating, a canceled Nutcracker season and more than 60 hours of federal mediation, her colleagues at the Washington Ballet finally won their first union contract—an agreement that gets them what they wanted all along — a voice in the workplace.

— Voice@Work, http://www.aflcio.org

Last week, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) reintroduced the Employee Free Choice Act. Go here for more information.

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