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ABT dancers form union.

NEW YORK CITY--The dancers and stagehands of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) have made a daring move that is sure to be recorded in the annals of the labor movement in the United States of America. Taking their fate into their own hands, the dancers have broken with the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) to form their own union, Independent Artists of America (IAA).

The change was made following an election last summer, in which the members of ABT's bargaining unit voted to leave AGMA and join IAA. The vote was thirty-eight for IAA, versus three for AGMA, with fifteen votes contested. Fifty-six members of the seventy-five-member bargaining unit participated in the election, which was held the week after ABT's Metropolitan Opera season closed in June.

Principal stage manager Lori Rosecrans, principal dancer Michael Owen, and corps de ballet dancer Griff Braun were the catalysts behind the move, and Owen and Rosecrans are now president and vice-president of the new union, respectively.

According to Owen, the break with AGMA was a long time in coming. "It goes back fifteen years or more," he says, recalling a conflict with Robert Jaffe, the AGMA lawyer who was supposed to represent ABT's dancers in contract negotiations in 1976. Owen remembers that the AGMA lawyer at that time was unwilling to help the dancers to improve their lot, taking the attitude that "we didn't deserve any more because we hadn't gone to college."

For the next round of contract negotiations, in 1979, the dancers hired their own attorney, Leonard Leibowitz, who came recommended to them by the Kennedy Center Orchestra. Leibowitz has represented ABT's dancers ever since, and Owen explains that, with his help, the dancers have made major gains.

Among the benefits that the ABT dancers have won for themselves over the years are vacation pay, single room rates on tour, dental insurance, additional medical coverage for chiropractors and massage, supplemental unemployment benefits, a job security clause, a more flexible pension plan, and--important for unionists--the right to refuse to cross a legally valid picket line.

"We finally gained the respect of management, not just as dancers and artists, but also as intelligent human beings who deserve a reasonable life-style," Owen says. He adds that in many cases ABT's contracts have set precedents, and that some benefits won by ABT have since been incorporated into AGMA's "national basic" contract, for companies with forty dancers or fewer. In other areas, however, the new union's founders say that the ABT contract remains superior to AGMA's national basic contract.

According to Rosecrans, the dancers have done even better since breaking with AGMA. They will retain their previous basic contract and will now try to improve upon it. She proudly reports that IAA's health package with Prudential, for example, offers more benefits than the AGMA Health Fund yet costs the employer less money. "Prudential came in with a rate that was under what the employer was currently paying to AGMA," says Rosecrans, "so we were able to add benefits. We added some life insurance; we added accidental death and dismemberment; we added an eye-care plan; we added a prescription card that will allow people to get prescription drugs at a much lower cost. It's a fabulous health plan, and, even adding those benefits, it's still coming in under what the employer was paying."

The founders of IAA claim that they are not hostile to AGMA and are urging ABT's dancers to retain their AGMA membership even though they have joined IAA. For the time being the new union's leaders are not actively recruiting other companies for IAA, though expansion is a definite possibility for the future. "We're in the midst of negotiating our own collective bargaining agreement now," says Rosecrans. "We feel like we have to get up and running, get our own house in order, and then we're hoping to broaden our membership beyond ABT."

A dedicated unionist, Rosecrans professes that she and other dancers who have served on AGMA's board of governors tried to effect change from within that organization before taking the decision to strike out on their own. "I have worked very hard at AGMA," she says. "I've been on many, many committees, so I can sleep at night knowing that I tried to work within. I believe AGMA is trying to make some positive changes now, but for us it was a little too late."

According to Owen, "over the period of years, numbers of dancers from ABT tried very hard to effect change, and it fell on deaf ears."

Although the founders of IAA had felt that AGMA had been inattentive to the needs of ABT's dancers for many years, the final straw, as Rosecrans says, was AGMA's refusal to pay any part of attorney Leibowitz's fee this year. This was particularly galling because ABT's dancers have lost several weeks of work during the past two years as a result of the company's financial crisis. "We were paying an average of $50,000 to $60,000 a year in dues to AGMA," explains Rosecrans. "Plus, on top of that, we're paying our attorney. I think we felt that we weren't really getting our money's worth." Each union member paid AGMA thirty-nine dollars twice a year, plus two percent of his or her weekly paycheck in dues.

Braun, like Rosecrans still a current member of AGMA's board of governors, is amazed by what he views as AGMA's inefficiency. "Some of those meetings are unbelievable," he says. "And they go on for hours. They are some of the most ineffective meetings that I've ever seen. It's just committee on top of committee on top of committee to decide if there should be a committee to decide the final issue."

The new union's leaders refute AGMA's claim that IAA will be isolated and an easy prey to management without the weight of the AFL-CIO (of which AGMA is a member) behind it. "I don't think we've ever felt AGMA was behind us," Rosecrans says bluntly.

"We have gotten a lot of positive feedback from all over," she adds. "Not just within the dance world, but from the musicians' union and the stagehands' union. All kinds of people have encouraged us to do this because they have known the problems that we've been facing."

If there were a strike "I know that we would have musicians, we would have stagehands, we would have all the other unions out there with us supporting us," says Owen. "Whether AGMA chooses to support us, that then becomes their decision."

The move to form a new union has ramifications beyond the dancers' ability to negotiate better salaries and benefits. IAA's founders are bright with idealism and lament what they feel has been a missed opportunity for AGMA to serve as a strong public advocate for the arts. According to Owen, "part of the [new] union's focus will be getting the message out [about] the dire straits that not just dance but the arts across America are in."

And Rosecrans adds, "I've also felt, especially through the years of being on the board at AGMA, that AGMA could make such a difference in terms of the arts and our government. And I feel like they get bogged down with their internal problems.

"I think that it's more than just a card you carry in your wallet when you belong to a union," she continues. "Carrying that card makes you a part of the labor movement of this country. And I think, in the performing arts especially, that we can make a difference."

Times have changed and today, as a new era of responsible management dawns, ballet dancers are taking matters into their own hands. Says Braun: "The so-called dance boom is over and companies are having to learn to operate in new ways. I think also we as dancers are now learning to deal with our responsibilities in a new way. We have to look out for ourselves."
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Title Annotation:American Ballet Theatre; Independent Artists of America
Author:Johnson, Robert (English judge)
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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