Contract negotiations between Joffrey Ballet management and its
dancers via their union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, broke
down on Friday, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times
yesterday morning. What happens from here could well hinge on whether
there’s a fundamental difference between stonewalling and an impasse:
The company claims its hand was forced due to an AGMA lawyer frequently
missing in action and, so far, that lawyer has granted only one
interview, with The New York Times, which quoted her in a blog post published on Monday afternoon.
“We were in the process of getting a response to the company when we heard about this lockout,” Barbara Hillman told Times reporter Melena Ryzik. “We were totally surprised by this.”
The Joffrey’s executive director, Christopher Clinton Conway, and
board chair Jason Tyler cosigned a written statement to the dancers on
July 1 announcing canceled performances, this summer and possibly into
its home season at the Auditorium Theatre, due to the dancers’ contract
expiring last Thursday, June 30. Joffrey representatives clarified that
back-to-back appearances in late August, at Cleveland’s Blossom
Festival and at the Chicago Dancing Festival, could still go on if new
contracts are signed within the next three weeks.
The dancers are currently in an annual period of unpaid leave, one of a few which total about 14 weeks per year.
Although the company has performed without contracts during past
disputes, choosing instead to honor bookings, applying changes
retroactively once new contract terms solidify, Joffrey management has
in this case opted to lock out the artists beginning July 7, citing an
impasse. “We simply cannot consider going forward with our season under
the cloud of a lingering threat that, at any time, AGMA could shut it
down with a strike,” the letter reads, according to the Sun-Times. The Joffrey received my request for a copy of this letter but has not yet shared it with TOC.
By phone from New York, AGMA executive director Alan S. Gordon confirmed to me what he e-mailed the Tribune,
as it reported earlier today. A lockout would be “probably illegal,” he
wrote, “because no impasse in the negotiations has been reached.”
According to Joffrey marketing manager Sarah Nelson, with whom I
spoke this afternoon, Hillman, AGMA’s Midwest representative and a
lawyer with Chicago firm Cornfield and Feldman, has forced the lockout
by being consistently unresponsive during months of negotiations.
Hillman has not responded to my requests for clarification, via e-mail
and a voice message left earlier today. A receptionist at Cornfield and
Feldman said only that Hillman was unavailable.
“It’s all so nuts, because the union and the dancers and the company
weren’t all that far apart” in their demands, said Gordon. Everyone with
whom I spoke agreed that the negotiation’s main sticking point was the
addition of an hour of rehearsals per day without salary increases
beyond 3 percent per year for the next five years. (The three-year
contract that expired on June 30 included annual raises of 5 percent.)
Conditions under which Joffrey Academy students perform with the company
are also in dispute, although neither Gordon nor Nelson could provide
any details. Neither of them could confirm which dancers were currently
AGMA representatives within the company which, combined with the
difficulty in getting statements from Hillman, means that the dancers’
specific position on these issues is unclear.
Ensemble member Fabrice Calmels told the Sun-Times that the
company was not planning to go on strike and that “[b]oth sides need to
make a rational decision that will involve some compromise,” but he is
not one of the dancers who reports to AGMA, according to a source.
“It’s detrimental to the union to have something like this happen,”
Gordon told me. “In dance negotiations we try to be a really active
partner with the dance company. A lockout’s a bad idea and a strike’s a
bad idea.” He says he has it “on pretty good authority,” although not
from Hillman, that she and the dancers are meeting today.
When I asked whether he anticipates becoming more directly involved in this dispute, he said, “Yes. I hope not, but yes.”
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