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SFB Union Negotiations with Dancers


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#1 Jayne

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 04:14 PM

Backstage has this article today.  The negotiations now involve a federal mediator.  After meeting 17 times they still do not have a deal.  

 

“We’re going to take the position every place that when the singers are the product or the dancers are the product they deserve better than anyone else,” said Alan Gordon, national executive director of AGMA. “We don’t want you to give less to anybody, but we don’t care what you give them because we want more.”

 

 

In other words, no matter what SFB offers, the union will not accept it because the negotiator wants even more.  It is a very aggressive position to take, and I do understand that the Bay is shockingly expensive.  His next comment does not match reality for me:

 

In San Francisco, the company’s some 70 dancers work 42 weeks a year, compared with 20 for the musicians, according to the union.  


Gordon said that has to change.

“Orchestras have always been paid better than opera singers or ballet dancers, and we think that’s wrong,” he said. “People don’t go to the ballet to hear the orchestra. They go to the ballet to see the dancers.”

 

 

Musicians practice their instruments outside of official rehearsals (usually just the dress rehearsal is paid for by the ballet company).  They are paid to bring first rate musicianship to each performance - but they are not paid for the practices that enable that first rate musicianship.  

 

In contrast, dancers are paid for their rehearsal time, 6 days a week, for 42 weeks.  

 

I believe people *do* go to the ballet to hear the Orchestra.  They go for the full experience: dance, orchestra, beautiful sets and beautiful costumes.  Look at the reviews for companies that don't have live orchestras, there are always comments that it was "less than" a true ballet experience, because there was no orchestra.

 

“We don’t care what you did for the orchestra. The orchestra’s irrelevant; they could be replaced tomorrow by a computer or a record. We’re entitled to more because we are the product,” he said.

 

Gordon insisted the tension with management—rare in the ballet world—doesn’t have to do with money. “We see it in terms of showing some respect for the dancers,” he said. “We want some demonstrable evidence that the company is willing to treat the dancers better than everybody else.”

 

If the orchestra is irrelevant, why does he keep bringing it up?  It cannot be replaced tomorrow by a computer or record.  2/3 of the audience would stop their season ticket membership if they tried that at SFB.  The problem is that the negotiator finds the orchestra completely relevant.  But they are relevant in a different employment structure.  They are paid by a performance week, rather than paid by their practice time.  I think if someone looked into the orchestra's practice time - individually, in sections, plus formal rehearsal time and opera house nights - it would indeed add up to 42 weeks / year. 

 

I think the union has valid points regarding compensation levels, but their negotiator is using a straw man argument in the interview.  



#2 sandik

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 04:37 PM

Wow -- he's making some really specious arguments here (no one goes to hear the orchestra?  they could be replaced by a recording?)  Not smart.  Not smart at all.



#3 Jayne

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 04:48 PM

Well no one ever said that union negotiators are supposed to be even handed.  They are zealous (perhaps over zealous) negotiators representing their clients to the "Nth" degree.  But still, no reason to disparage other artists in the building.  



#4 Swanilda8

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 04:59 PM

Replacing the orchestra with a recording? Ridiculous, and I hope not a real argument. San Francisco has one of the best ballet orchestras in the US in my opinion. Presumably, they get those musicians because they pay them well. If they get rid of that orchestra, or even reduce their salaries (thereby degrading the quality of the music) they'll rapidly lose all claim to being one of the major American, or world, companies.

 

Argh. This makes me see red.



#5 PeggyR

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 05:29 PM

Wow -- he's making some really specious arguments here (no one goes to hear the orchestra?  they could be replaced by a recording?)  Not smart.  Not smart at all.

 

Do these people understand that a good orchestra and conductor will adapt to individual dancers, thus enhancing the dancer's (the 'product's') performance, something a recording or computer cannot do?  And I'm curious how dancers feel about being referred to as a 'product'.  Silly me, I thought they were 'artists'.



#6 Jayne

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 07:14 PM

I'm not one to bash unions, I have a college education because my dad belonged to one that negotiated hard for decent paying wages.  

 

However, the SFB dancers are paying dues that pay for this negotiator's time.  If he can't get to a deal after 17 meetings, then that tells me he's more interested in clocking billable hours making blow-hard statements.  The SFB dancers need to reconsider what exactly they are paying for.  Someone else could have gotten down to brass tacks by the 3rd meeting and have a signed contract by now, and lower their union dues (or give them an extra union paid benefit, like AFLAC insurance).



#7 pherank

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 07:57 PM

I'm not one to bash unions, I have a college education because my dad belonged to one that negotiated hard for decent paying wages.  

 

However, the SFB dancers are paying dues that pay for this negotiator's time.  If he can't get to a deal after 17 meetings, then that tells me he's more interested in clocking billable hours making blow-hard statements.  The SFB dancers need to reconsider what exactly they are paying for.  Someone else could have gotten down to brass tacks by the 3rd meeting and have a signed contract by now, and lower their union dues (or give them an extra union paid benefit, like AFLAC insurance).

 

Hear hear. I'd like to add that union negotiators do not represent artists as such, they represent dues paying union members. Thus the obnoxious, bullying tone developed to deal with presumably obnoxious management. A kind of one-size-fits-all script (because we're all cliches, I guess). Very sad. The artists need to be paid a decent wage, and the company actually needs to survive, or no one gets paid or has a career, and the audiences have no art. I've always supported the IDEA of unions, but this one of a thousand examples of how badly they can function in practice. Note how little the AGMA union reps have in common with their members.

 

Through a strange coincidence, last night I just happened to read Toni Bentley's Winter Season description of labor negotions at NYCB, and how they came close to shutting down the company for good. This same situation comes up in some other books, but Bentley's description is especially personal, and actually rather humorous when she talks about what their union meetings looked like:

 

"Meetings are a curious coming together of two worlds -- young dancers and middle-aged, rotund, complacent union people...We sit on the floor cracking our necks, stretching our toes, braiding our hair, giving massages, chewing gum, drinking soda and smoking...We attempt to explain to these men our perverse and unique situation. We are under the dictatorship of one man, whom we adore and respect, and his every whim is our law, no questions asked."

 

EDIT: And for those who have been wondering about the recent sponsorships of principal dancers (all non-US citizens), this situation may have something to do with that. All the dancers have to be paid for somehow.

http://balletalert.i...ncipal-dancers/



#8 dancemaven

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 08:05 AM

As typical, that article doesn't even begin to give an overview of the negotiations that have occurred over the last 17 meetings.  The article doesn't even make sense.  The players involved aren't even accurately described in terms of involvement.  Don't forget the dancers' negotiating committee has been involved every step of the way.  There is a reason things have reached the pitch they have. . . . Unless one has been privy to the negotiations, I would think it would be a bit presumptuous to cast blame.  Negotiations involving so many constituents is always a difficult matter.

 

In this particular case, I believe the actual union rep (a retired professional dancer) DOES have quite a bit in common with the company members and has negotiated on their behalf for many, many years.  Yes, things appear to have escalated . . . .but the article doesn't even begin to address the why's or why not's of that escalation and the reason(s) for it.



#9 dirac

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 10:05 AM

Dancers are artists. They are also workers. I think dancemaven makes some good points. The article is skimpy on details and I would not extrapolate too much from it.  The remarks on the subject of the orchestra are impolitic to put it mildly but I wouldn't draw any conclusions about the quality of  the dancers' representation from them.

 

It is absolutely true that San Francisco is an expensive town these days.....



#10 pherank

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 12:21 PM

Apparently the article link has changed to:

http://www.backstage...g-deal-dancers/

 

Note that the abrasive statements made in the article are coming from Alan Gordon, national executive director of AGMA, not necessarily from the negotiating committee as Dancemaven points out. So far, I've found no additional information on the negotiations.

 

For now, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has appointed Joel Schaffer as a mediator. Talks are set to resume Sept. 19–20, with the union eyeing the ballet’s Oct. 13 trip to New York City as a deadline.

 

“The dancers are already having a hard time affording to live in the city,” said Nora Heiber, national dance executive for AGMA, noting a studio apartment near the theater rents for around $2,000 a month. “We have the best dancers in the world, and they should be able to afford a decent lifestyle.”

“It’s a national issue,” said Heiber. “This is the situation with all our dance companies.”

 

Gordon's statement that “We want some demonstrable evidence that the company is willing to treat the dancers better than everybody else” seems to be the crux of the matter, and that attitude will definitely rub many people the wrong way. What does it really mean? And how does one measure such things?

 

On a side note (and if anyone cares) -- through the wonders of the Internet, the former AGMA agreement with SFB is available online as a PDF.



#11 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 01:29 PM

 

 

On a side note (and if anyone cares) -- through the wonders of the Internet, the former AGMA agreement with SFB is available online as a PDF.

 

Thanks for the link, pherank. If I'm reading the AGMA agreement correctly, a corps member with 5-7 years of service made a minimum of about $1400 per week under the old contract. Just for some context, a fully credentialed K-12 teacher with a BA makes about $1340 per week in the SF public school system. (My calculation based on a salary of $49,500 for a184 day work year, which works out to 36.8 weeks. You can find the SF public school salary schedule here and the contract here.)

 

There are other things that need to be taken into consideration, of course -- e.g., overtime, benefits, etc. The dancers get overtime; the teachers don't. On the other hand, the teachers may have access to better health and retirement plans (I know AGMA runs both a health and retirement plan, but I believe the ability to participate in them depends on the collective bargaining agreement negotiated with each arts organization.) But the base salaries appear to be roughly comparable. 

 

Usual caveat: I'm not arguing that artists shouldn't get paid more. 

 

It would be interesting to know what the musicians make.



#12 pherank

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 01:47 PM

It would be interesting to know what the musicians make.

 

That would of course involve the musician's union. I've been trying to figure out just how many unions or associations are involved in putting on a ballet performance at the War Memorial Opera house. Presumably the ones I list below - but what others?

 

AGMA
Musicians Union
Stage Managers' Association
International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees
Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
Teamsters

 

From 2008: The Contract Behind the Curtain: A Glimpse into the San Francisco Ballet Dancer’s Contract

http://www.imaginela...ey-1286974.html
 

 

The Basic Agreement also provides minimum compensation amounts for dancers during the company’s rehearsal and performance weeks.  A dancer’s compensation increases yearly (over the 3-year term) and depends upon the dancer’s performance rank within the company and seniority.  For example, the Basic Agreement guarantees full-time dancers will receive the following minimum weekly salaries for the final 2008-2009 contract year:
Apprentice Dancer: $560.60 / week
Corps 1st year Dancer: $1,027.52 / week
Corps 8-10 yrs Dancer:   $1,341.10 / week
Soloist 1st year Dancer:   $1,426.97 / week
Principal Dancer: $1,846.00 / week
 

Dancers who undertake “extraordinary risk” in the course of a performance or dance rehearsal are entitled to an extra payment of $58.49 (minimum).  Suspension from a trapeze or wire is considered “extraordinary risk” per se under the Basic Agreement.  If an Artist is called upon to perform a feat that he or she considers to be extraordinarily risky, then a committee, consisting of two dancers and two company representatives view the ballet to decide if it involves “extraordinary risk” (and warrants the extra payment).



#13 pherank

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 02:08 PM

I personally have lived in a number of the better places around the SF Bay Area, (though when I actually lived in SF proper I was definitely poor and shared housing), so I know what it takes to survive in the area. Just to scrape by, and pay for apartment rent (entirely by yourself), and your own health insurance as well as other insurances, plus food and a little entertainment requires about $4000 a month AFTER taxes. (But you can forget about vacation packages - try driving somewhere and camping out). Obviously, if you can find a "deal" on housing, or you and your partner share rental expenses, and even health insurance expenses, then there's more money for all the personal extras. The 2008-2009 salaries quoted above show me that Corps dancers are barely squeezing by, or not. Principal dancers are obviously the best off, and they have other opportunities for money making that aren't as available to the lower-ranking members of the company.



#14 Globetrotter

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Posted 13 September 2013 - 03:06 PM

Is the issue not so much compensation but the absolute control of the artistic director?  I'd guess the ballet is the last bastion of dictatorial power in modern organizations.  Who dances what role and when, is, as I understand it, decided by one person and not necessarily with an explanation. I can see why the dancers are asking for more respect.

 

As a musician, at least I always played the music written for my chair.  The conductor had little discretion in assigning that.



#15 abatt

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Posted 03 October 2013 - 12:04 PM

The dispute has been resolved.  Good news!

 

http://artsbeat.blog...union/?ref=arts




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