Specifics unclear in labor dispute at Joffrey Ballet

A screenshot of the Joffrey Ballet's website taken on July 5.

A screenshot of the Joffrey Ballet's website taken on July 5.

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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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)