3 questions: Joffrey Ballet's union negotiations

July 6, 2011
Chicago Tribune
Kristin Samuelson


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 easier stance.

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 teachers?

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.