University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson talks about the lockout of the dancers at the Joffrey Ballet
— the company has canceled the beginning of its 2011 season — over
stalled salary negotiations. The Joffrey offered a five-year contract
with a 3 percent annual wage increase for dancers and a bump in the
minimum rehearsal week to 30 hours from 25, which are hours consistent
with other major dance companies.
Q: There seems to be a lot of lockouts lately. Why?
A: My sense is that with regard to Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, New
Jersey and others — not ballet-related, but teachers, government
employees, as well as in professional sports leagues — there was a sense
among new governors (and the ones I mentioned had political change in
2010) facing budget situations, they decided to push back on what they
regarded as union contracts that were too favorable. The same is true
for the NFL and NBA:
Owners feeling that the previous collective bargaining agreements were
too generous to the players. I'm not saying they were or they weren't,
but in the political and sports world, the sands shifted. And I see the
arts/ballet situation in that light. When things were going well — the
1990s and early years of this century — the owners sort of took an
Q: The negotiations between the ballet company and the dancers
union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, have been likened to the
NFL or NBA lockouts. How do they compare? How are they similar
to/different than those in traditional segments, such as autoworkers and
A: I think in some ways, NFL or NBA players — like ballet dancers and symphony orchestra members and opera singers — are in a particularly strong negotiating position because they possess talents or skills that are not easily replaced.
Potentially, one thing that strengthens (the dancers') opportunity more
is that on the other side of the table are nonprofit organizations. They
may be able to absorb higher costs easier. Whereas if you're dealing
with a for-profit, like with the NFL or NBA, deep down they don't want
to lose money. With nonprofits, I don't think they have deeper pockets,
but they can absorb those costs a little bit. And the unions are not
stupid. They know that, so they're more likely to take an even harder
position than the NFL or the NBA players.
They also are similar in the personalities involved. These folks tend to
be prima donnas (in the ballet, opera or symphony). They're kind of
like wide receivers in football: egomaniacs. And their unions support
those (traits). Some would even make LeBron James blush.
In a highly competitive market, firms stand to make less money. The
ability of the union, like the saying, "To get blood out of a turnip,"
is quite limited. But when you're dealing with an industry for which
there is not much market competition, like government workers, which
would include teachers, it's harder to enter that industry. For the
run-of-the-mill job, there's market competition that disciplines firms
and makes it more difficult for unions to prevail. If, say, hotel union
members were to prevail, the stockholders suffer; they have a lot at
stake. (But) in the public arena where there's not much competition,
the union is more likely to prevail.
Q: Joffrey's executive director, Christopher Clinton Conway,
said much of the ballet company's frustration stems from the union's
"nonresponsiveness," leaving the dancers out of the loop. Is this
typical of all labor negotiations?
A: You can get similar kinds of complaints in (the NFL). Roger Goodell,
the commissioner of the NFL, could say "The players don't know what's
going on." I suspect in both cases, there's little bit of truth but a
little bit of leverage that's being exercised there. In some ways, the
football players, they know what they feel they need to know and I
suspect the dancers are the same. Their job is to dance well.
So much of this is a game-theoretic issue. "Can we make the other side
blink?" In some ways, the union wants to paint the Joffrey Ballet as the
bad guys … and the Joffrey Ballet is trying to split the dancers from
the union. It's just negotiating ploys.
If I were in Las Vegas and betting my own money, I suppose I'd bet the
Joffrey's season wouldn't be canceled. In the end they'll kiss and make
up. But … when you look at Wisconsin's or Illinois' budget problems or
the federal budget deficit, in reading the tea leaves, they suggest
we're in reasonably hard times … and are somewhat anti-union. I suspect
in the end with the NBA and NFL, the owners will win though the players
are talented (and) are hard to replace. And I believe the same about the
Joffrey. In another climate, I believe the dancers would be much more
likely to prevail than is going to be the case now. The unions chose a
bad time to pick a fight.
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