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No Contract, No Pirouettes — Ballet Dancers Are Organizing for Labor Rights

Dancers at Miami City Ballet will have a union election on May 14, having endured a concerted union-busting campaign.

Members of the Miami City Ballet performs "Dances at a Gathering" on July 2, 2006, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California.

As they perform Swan Lake, dancers at Miami City Ballet in Florida have been facing a union-busting campaign from the company’s management. Their case went to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which ruled on May 8 in favor of the dancers seeking to unionize, clearing the way for a union election on May 14.

These dancers are just one group in a wave of ballet companies unionizing with the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). But in Miami, organizing dancers endured significant challenges.

“The company has engaged in a pretty aggressive, coordinated anti-union campaign,” including union-busting tactics, captive-audience meetings and attempts to deny a union election, said AGMA National Organizing Director Griff Braun, in an interview with Truthout.

Management has predictably argued that the dancers are better off without a union. Management has also alleged that the union would be a third party interfering with existing contracts, when in fact, the union would not be a third party, but rather, an organization of workers themselves that would allow them stronger rights. There are some dancers at the company who have taken a strong anti-union stance, as well, but many of the dancers back the unionization effort.

“A union gives dancers the strength to have a voice in a line of work that often teaches us to be silent,” said one Miami City Ballet dancer, who requested anonymity due to potential retaliation for union-related organizing, in an email to Truthout. “I want to be part of a union because I think it’s important for dancers to have a say in the contract that determines many of our working conditions and pay, and it’s equally important for leadership to be held accountable to following the contract in place.”

The dancer told Truthout that while the performers do not have specific demands yet, “What we really want now is to become a union, and from there, we can begin to voice changes to the contract that can improve our working and living conditions.” The dancer added that, in the past, management has broken the contract, but there was no way to enforce violations. Now, the dancers are one step closer to that goal.

“We’re very pleased that the National Labor Relations Board has rejected Miami City Ballet’s claims and ordered an immediate union election for the dancers,” Braun told Truthout. “This is a huge step forward for these hardworking artists and we’re confident they will win their union.”

The Miami City Ballet did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

Dancers at the Miami City Ballet are not the only ones standing up for their rights. Nevada Ballet Theatre, Ballet Idaho, St. Louis Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Texas Ballet Theater, Ballet Austin and the Dance Theatre of Harlem have unionized with AGMA since 2021. Other companies, like American Ballet Theatre, have been unionized for decades.

“The dancers of all of those companies [that have recently unionized] have come together and formed their union with AGMA, and many of them are in bargaining for their first contact. There’s a real movement here,” Braun told Truthout.

AGMA has a direct charter with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and represents singers, dancers and staging staff. More than 6,000 workers belong to AGMA. The union’s members also include the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and Alvin Ailey Dance.

“I think that a big part of it is seeing your colleagues do it,” a dancer from a regional company told Truthout. He likewise asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. Dancers usually have the summers off, so they will often travel to dance work elsewhere for those months. At these jobs, dancers from across the country meet each other and work together.

“People talk about how things are going back at their main company,” he said. “And so I think dancers are getting together, and they’re learning about the experiences that dancers [who] have recently organized are having…. So, I think a lot of it is just understanding the agency that this brings people in ways that they hadn’t had before.”

Dancers at American Ballet Theatre in New York City, one of the most prestigious companies in the country, voted 95.6 percent in favor of authorizing a strike in February. One of the major concerns was wages, according to dancer Alexandra Basmagy, a senior member of the corps de ballet (the core group of dancers within a company who often dance in unison as a backdrop behind the soloists). The dancers are split up into levels: corps de ballet, soloists and principal dancers. Newer members of the corps de ballet weren’t making a livable wage, while more senior dancers had not seen increases in years.

“I think it was just a lot of frustration,” Basmagy told Truthout. “We felt that without taking a drastic measure, they weren’t going to take us seriously, that we were willing to miss our season, and make a point that we are the company. Without the dancers, nobody else has a job in that building.”

The dancers did not go on strike because they were able to work out a deal with management, and AGMA ratified the three-year agreement by the end of February. The workers won cost-of-living increases of between 9 percent and 19 percent over three years. The workers also won an increased retirement of 5 percent by the third year. Basmagy said that retirement is a major issue for dancers because their career is so short. Dancers generally retire between ages 35 and 40 because of the toll that dance takes on the body, either through injury or chronic pain.

The dancers also won improved pay for parental leave. Previously, a pregnant dancer would receive four weeks of paid leave, and they would typically be put on leave when they started to show — between 16-20 weeks. Basmagy, who has a 4-year-old, stopped working for 10 months when she was pregnant and after she gave birth. Now, pregnant dancers are allowed to work as long as they are medically cleared to do so, and they receive eight weeks of paid leave.

The dancers also receive disability pay during the season.

Contract negotiations are not just about wages; they can also be about pay structure, overtime pay and job security. In ballet, a common concern is also predictability of scheduling and casting, so that dancers can plan the rest of their week. “There’s a lot of work that dancers do that’s not during work hours,” Braun said, such as training or physical therapy.

Short-term notice of scheduling was one recent complaint at the Syracuse City Ballet in New York. Dancers would receive their schedules on Sunday nights, sometimes learning they would perform the next day, Cara Connolly, who previously danced with the Syracuse City Ballet, told Truthout. One dancer who asked for a little extra time was later reprimanded for not following the chain of command by talking to someone higher up without someone else present. “The next day the rehearsal director made passive aggressive comments about the schedule, which was hurtful and embarrassing,” Connolly told Truthout.

This was not the first incident that led to a hostile environment at the Syracuse City Ballet. Two dancers were working on partnering (performing together in a closely coordinated way that often involves one dancer lifting the other), when a person in a management position told them to stop talking and just listen. Lack of communication between two dancers can be dangerous, according to Connolly.

The dynamic at the company escalated until a bizarre episode allegedly took place: The same person in management berated a teenage student, leaving her in tears. The 15-year-old was taking a class with a dancer from the Syracuse City Ballet, and the person in management alleged that the teen had been speaking ill about the company. When the Syracuse City Ballet dancer spoke to another member of management about this altercation, he apparently yelled and slammed the table. The teenage dancer decided to drop out of the upcoming performance of The Nutcracker.

That night, November 10, 2023, the dancers — who were not unionized — decided to go on strike. Remarkably, they were so dedicated to their craft that they rented studio space and continued rehearsing for The Nutcracker. They hoped that they could reach an agreement quickly.

But on November 16, five of the eight dancers were fired, and one was placed on administrative leave. The company quickly hired new dancers to perform The Nutcracker.

Connolly was one of the fired dancers. When the dancers issued a press release about what had happened, “the outpouring was overwhelming,” she said. “It was really not what we expected.”

The six dancers were able to put on their own performance in December instead of The Nutcracker. “It became a battle cry,” Connolly said. Now, they call themselves the Central New York Ballet. They just had their first full-length performance, Swan Lake Act II and Ravel’s Boléro, on April 6 and 7 in Syracuse.

Syracuse City Ballet did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

“There’s always someone younger and hungrier who will do it for less money and for worse treatment,” Connolly told Truthout. “That’s been the catalyst for protesting these unfair practices that make us feel like we’re at the mercy of someone who doesn’t care about us. When they fired us, it was confirmation of how they felt all along.”

Braun expressed a similar sentiment: “I think the work that dancers do and the kind of dedication that dancers have to have, that work to get to the level of these kinds of companies like American Ballet Theatre or Dance Theater of Harlem, that kind of dedication is easy to exploit, when a worker has devoted their lives, their identities to this thing,” he said. “So I think just very generally, it’s vital in this kind of work that dancers have a voice in what their job looks like and how they can sustain themselves throughout this career.”

When dancers at Texas Ballet Theater sought to unionize last year, they were met with union-busting from management. The company hired LRI Consulting Services, an “employee relations” consulting firm. Last year, HuffPost called the company “corporate America’s favorite ‘union busting’ firm.” Its clients have included Dollar General, pharmaceutical company Pfizer and food distributor Sysco.

Following an NLRB hearing, Texas Ballet Theater dancers voted to join AGMA in February 2023. The company is now in contract negotiations.

Texas Ballet Theater said in a statement to Truthout: “We respect the dancers’ right to unionize. As for negotiations, they continue in good faith. We are committed to reaching an outcome that is agreeable to all parties involved.”

For Basmagy, who is about to retire after 13 years with American Ballet Theatre, contract negotiations are partly about the next generation. “Our entire company was behind this whole negotiation and really wanted the best for everyone because these [changes] do make a difference for the next generation coming in. We have so many things nowadays that people in the ‘80s have fought for us and that, you know, we don’t even think twice about, but for them it was a big deal.” For example, in 1982, following a nine-week labor dispute, American Ballet Theater became the first ballet company to offer severance pay in its contract.

Braun likewise believes in the power of collective bargaining to make things better for the present and future. “Unionized dancers are going to have better protections, they’re going to have better benefits, they’re going to have better pay, they’re going to have more structure, more predictability,” he said. “What I always say when I’m talking to dancers that are thinking about unionizing … is that unionizing doesn’t guarantee anything, it doesn’t guarantee improvements. But what it does guarantee is that you have a voice to advocate for yourselves in a real way.”