It's a well known fact that the worst thing you can do in politics is tell the truth. Even though people more often than not demand honesty the voices opposed to that honesty always seem to be the loudest.
A few days ago the Equity Dance website released a statement that basically condemned the Royal Opera House in London when, once again, they offered jobs to professional dancers in one of their opera productions with a pay rate of just £358.73 per week.
The Royal Opera House receives over £24Million annually in public subsidy from Arts Council England.
The Equity Dance statement stated the simple truth. Professional dancers were being paid an hourly rate below that of the box office staff working in the same building. The people answering the phones selling very expensive tickets were being paid more money than the skilled, trained, professional dancers who would be performing on the stage.
The statement read (in part);
"We see that the weekly rate during rehearsals calculates to an hourly rate of just £9.14 an hour, which when compared to the rate of £10.70 per hour you offer to Box Office Sales Assistants (advertised April 2014), this seems highly disproportionate"
Equity Dance simply told the truth but the main Equity union didn't like that one little bit. As the story, somewhat surprisingly, hit the mainstream press outlets the statement vanished into to thin air even though it was being widely quoted in the press.
The Guardian quoted one Hilary Hadley from Equity stating;
"...Unfortunately this request was made more public than was our intention and dancers' concerns have been picked up by the press. We regret this as we do not want to harm our good relations with the ROH and the negotiation process"
Equity engages in a negotiation "process"? How does that process go exactly: ROH - "The dancers are getting £358.73 per week, okay!", Equity - "Yes sir and thank you for your time, sorry if we got any dirt on your carpets!"
Ms Hadley has come onto our radar before, here in TheLab™. She was the one defending the English National Opera when they were paying professional dancers £327 per week for their involvement in a production of 'The Death of Klinghoffer' that we highlighted two years ago in our piece 'The United States of Nobody Gives a Sh*t'
At the time Ms Hadley seemed to be completely unaware that ENO was sitting on millions of pounds in budget surplus so the reasons for the pathetically low pay level for the dancers was not a financial one. It is also decidedly inconvenient for Equity that the contracts with both the ENO two years ago and the Royal Opera House today were negotiated by Equity themselves.
The union that is supposed to protect the artists is doing nothing of the sort. In fact they are actually apologising to the very people who are demonstrably guilty of treating professional dancers like so much set dressing by stating;
"It was not our intention to antagonise the Royal Opera House."
Pay Your Dues
In their statements to the Guardian and on their website Equity appears to care not one bit about antagonising the professional dancers they are supposed to represent. The whole debacle is a communications disaster for a union that is trying to get more dancers to join their ranks and pay their dues.
Why would any dancer consider being a part of a union that so blatantly grovels at the feet of a major arts organisation that is demonstrably in the wrong?
Why would any dancer consider being a part of a union that apologises for releasing a statement that told the truth?
Equity can bleat all they want about harming the negotiation process but what does that matter when Equity is very obviously terrible at negotiating? They can't even negotiate their own minimum wage for dancers set at the still too low rate of £430 per week.
It is abundantly clear that Equity doesn't understand what a union is supposed to be. Unions need to be ball-busters when the circumstances call for it. They don't shriek in horror when they get national press attention highlighting an issue that is nothing short of an embarrassment to the entire culture profession in the UK.
When it comes to wages Equity is weak and almost completely irrelevant in the wide world of dance. They either need a better strategy or they need a better team to devise a better strategy. Either way, something's got to give.
photo by Paolo Margari