Washington Ballet Dancers Unionize; Cite Pay, Time off, Health Care

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The Washington Ballet voted Monday to join the American Guild of Musical Artists, AFL-CIO, and become a union company.

In December, dancers asked the AGMA, which represents most of the major dance companies in the country, to represent them because they were dissatisfied with management responses to complaints. Among those complaints were inadequate pay, a cavalier attitude toward time off in their contracts, insufficient notice about casting and a lack of work rules and in-house health care to help prevent injuries.

The ballet's board and management chose not to negotiate with the union, which appealed to the National Labor Relations Board in January. According to AGMA: "The NLRB rejected the company's legal arguments and ordered a secret-ballot election. The vote was 18 to two in favor of joining AGMA."

Jason Palmquist, the Washington Ballet's executive director - the fourth one in four years - disputes AGMA's interpretation.

"To call it rejection," he says, "is inflammatory language. Labor law in this country is very complicated. We wanted to present evidence about the specific nature of life here at the Washington Ballet. To distill complicated things down into a sentence or two is really difficult."

The dancers' dissatisfaction was something Mr. Palmquist inherited. For more than a year, the company had operated without a separate executive director. During that time, Artistic Director Septime Webre acted as de facto executive director at the board's request. Mr. Palmquist only came aboard as director Dec. 1, and just 12 days later was blindsided by the notice from AGMA that the dancers wanted union representation.

"The dancers really thought they didn't have a voice" Mr. Palmquist says. "I think it's one of the reasons the company felt it needed a strong administrative leader."

Mr. Palmquist acknowledges that there were elements in the old contract that cried out for revision.

"There were numerous instances in the contract of work rules and conditions that had a caveat," he says. "Like, we will do it 'whenever possible' or 'except under extenuating circumstances.' Why even have a contract if it's 'whenever possible'?"

Mr. Palmquist thinks the Washington Ballet was in some sense experiencing the growing pains of its success. "Certainly, the company was being pushed artistically this fall," he says. …