The Joffrey Ballet Lockout

Pointe invited James Fayette to write about the current lockout situation at the Joffrey Ballet from the perspective of the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union that represents dancers’ employment. As a former New York City Ballet principal and with almost six years' experience negotiating and enforcing contracts as a dance executive at AGMA, he has a unique perspective on the dance world.

In my experience, there are two ways that managements deal with AGMA: They work with us, or they try to marginalize us. Unions challenge managements; that is their purpose, to ensure that the employer is doing the best it can for the people who work for them. There is a strong temptation to avoid the union or build leverage against them, but working against the union always ends up in a dispute over something unrelated to the core issues that need to be addressed in order to secure a fair agreement and implement conditions that both parties can successfully work under.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, the Joffrey Ballet attempted to build leverage against AGMA and its dancers. The company and the union are in active negotiations with a contract that legally remains in effect until a new agreement is made or the parties reach the legal definition of an impasse. Neither of these has occurred, yet the Joffrey locked out its dancers and removed them from their website. First of all, locking out its dancers is illegal because an impasse was not reached, and second of all, the dancers are on layoff and it is silly to lock out dancers who are not even currently working. It is clear that the company is employing a strategy to make the dancers anxious about their jobs in an attempt to force a better deal in the current negotiations. The company is trying to marginalize the union instead of working with it to find a creative solution to the issues on which there is disagreement.

Negotiations at the Joffrey continue with a federal mediator, whose role is to help both parties make a deal. AGMA will take the necessary steps to counter Joffrey’s attempt to lock out its artists, and eventually an agreement will be reached. However, the Joffrey Ballet should be reminded that unlike other non-artistic management/employment relationships, the performing artists are the company. They are not the workers who make the product, but instead, they and their bodies are the product. A performing dance artist has deep personal ownership of their art and this entitles them to a partnership in how that art and their physicality is managed. The way that the Joffrey Ballet dancers protect themselves and what they do is through the labor/management relationship, and their management should refocus its energies on taking care of its artists rather than strategizing against them.

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