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Dancers Walk: Strike at Dance Theatre of Harlem

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Members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) have called a strike, rejecting a one-year collective bargaining agreement offered by management and vowing to withhold their services.

The action, passed by unanimous vote, followed hard on the heels of a Jan. 14 arbitration request against DTH made by the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), which represents the striking dancers. AGMA spokesman Jamie Van Bramer said the strike was partly instigated by the former agreement's expiration on Wed., Jan. 22, at midnight. The contract had been extended after officially expiring on Sept. 30.

"This is not simply about economics," Van Bramer told Back Stage. "Wages were an issue. But equally as important was that management has requested a number of givebacks on work rules that were unacceptable."

The walkout was accompanied by a statement from the dancers themselves. It read:

"Management's proposal not only diminishes the work rules and conditions, but also the stature of the artists at DTH that has been achieved over the years. Such eroded terms and conditions, as proposed by management, would jeopardize and threaten the health and well-being of the artists. This is not simply a question of economics. Our goal is to preserve the integrity of the vision upon which the Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded."

DTH officials had not responded to repeated calls by press time.

Floaters and Free Days

Among the features of the rejected DTH proposal are two issues concerning which the union had demanded arbitration: the company's use of apprentices and "floaters."

According to Van Bramer, DTH wishes to employ more apprentices, as opposed to full-fledged dancers. Apprentices, though members of AGMA, are paid on a lower scale. The previous accord allowed for a maximum of six apprentices. The floaters issue addresses a category of dancer about which there is some confusion.

"From what we could tell, floaters had the same responsibilities under the collective bargaining agreement," asserted Van Bramer, "but since they had this new title, management claims they aren't covered under the contract.

"When you get down to the basic issue," he continued, "it's if you create a new category of employee, where is the protection of the contract? That's the essential problem."

Van Bramer claimed that other changes in work rules sought by DTH management included the elimination of free-day and penalty rates. If management needs to call on dancers during their days off, it is required to pay higher, free-day rates; and if dancers are asked to work between matinees and evening shows, after travel, or in similar circumstances, they are paid a steeper penalty rate.

Additionally, DTH wants to lengthen the time between dancers' breaks from the current three hours to four, according to Van Bramer.

As a result of the strike, DTH was forced to use students in a Jan. 25 performance at SUNY Purchase, a benefit concert for a variety of social causes with the Westchester Philharmonic. The situation caused officials of that orchestra some consternation, prompting them to consult labor lawyers.

"If there had been a picket line, my musicians and I would not have crossed it," said Paul Lustig Dunkel, the philharmonic's musical director. "My sympathies are definitely with the dancers, in this case."

Van Bramer said no new negotiations had been scheduled as of

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