It's all relative: The Joffrey's union woes

July 7, 2011

Updated: July 7, 4:40 PM

On the plus side: What’s most amazing about the Joffrey’s dust-up with AGMA, the dancers’ union, is that the performers have any bargaining power at all. Even at Hubbard Street—Chicago’s un-Joffrey—the dancers aren’t unionized, according to a spokesperson there. Though I suspect that HSDC’s pay scale is competitive, most dancers don’t do what they do for the money. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be fairly paid.

More on the plus side: Compared to most dancers, the Joffrey’s labor force has a sweet deal. Nina Metz quoted exec director Christopher Clinton Conway as saying, “None of the [Joffrey] dancers make less than the mid-20s, and we have dancers that make 75-plus. And all their health care is covered.” Most other dancers (and most artists, for that matter) are lucky to get any kind of pay, much less health care coverage, for all the rehearsing and performing they do, squeezed into whatever time is left after their day jobs.

And on the minus side: Some Joffrey dancers are barely making a living wage. And if they start working 30 hours a week instead of 25—one bone of contention—at no more pay, some will be making roughly twice minimum wage per hour at a part-time job that runs 38 weeks per year. (Also, according to Zac Whittenburg in TimeOut Chicago, union rep Barbara Hillman disputes management’s claim that some dancers make 75-plus: “There is no one in this company who makes 55 thousand dollars a year. No one.” She also maintains that the artists are more unified now, after the lockout, than they were last week: “The company’s actions were counterproductive.”)

And let’s put the numbers in perspective: Compare the Joffrey dancer salaries with what NFL and NBA players make. Though dancers take all the risks and have all the physical talent and training of professional athletes, they take home a tiny fraction of what those beer-and-grill-touting corporate spokesguys do.

So it’s a little strange to compare locking out NFL and NBA players and locking out the Joffrey workforce—all part of the larger strangeness of lumping unions together. Little connects schoolteachers, cops, service employees, and autoworkers with professional entertainers, including dancers and pro sports players. More significant are the differences in how all these jobs are perceived and valued. McDonald’s employees, teachers, and yes, dancers, actually need unions.

But because of that same system of what’s valued in our culture, it’s quixotic to think that the everyday performing-arts laborer will get blood out of the turnips that are dance companies. Socialism, anyone?

An update: AGMA national executive director Alan Gordon tells me that the standard dance contract does not include company class, which for most troupes is an hour to 90 minutes each day. If the Joffrey’s contract excludes company class, as per usual, that would add 5 to 7.5 hours a week to union members’ contracted 30 hours if the expanded workweek goes through. Which in turn would mean that dancers with $25,000-a-year salaries would be earning somewhere between $17.54 and $18.79 per hour.

A friend formerly on an AGMA contract with another troupe says that company class was a sticking point in a dispute there years ago. Those dancers argued that, though the daily class was technically optional, it was in fact mandatory in order to remain in good standing with the company.

Gordon says that there will be news on Tuesday, based on the union’s stance that the lockout is illegal.