In my research I came across an article about Argentina’s Ballet dancers taking to the streets in protest of the funding cuts to their company. Recently Alvin Ailey dancers went on strike to protest that their pay is 35% lower than that of commensurate companies. While this is peripheral to my personal project, it dovetailed with time in France where the railway unions were on strike (called the “grève” in French.) Before I come back as to why I think these dancers are in the right, a word about the French grève.
I have relied on public transit almost exclusively during my times in Paris and France. In Paris the metros (these days) tend to be clean and in good working order. Compared to cities like New York (a public transit nightmare!) the metro is inexpensive and easy to use and we never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a train. Prior to the strike by the train union, which runs the larger above ground inter-city and international trains, the union announced its strike days to the public well in advance. The strike meant that fewer trains would run on the announced days. Furthermore, if your train was cancelled, you would be notified by text several days in beforehand and, for good measure, you could check to ensure your train was running after 5:00pm the day prior to travel. Reservations for travel during the strike could be changed or refunded free of charge prior to the departure date. While a strike is inconvenient, it was well-organized and done with tangible respect for the riding public. Yes, the drivers are fighting an attack on their benefits, but they are also on strike to send a message to French President Macron against privatization. While privatization has its supporters, it has had disastrous impacts in places like the UK. Many years ago when I lived in England the train was an excellent way to get around, but after the national system was privatized it became plagued with problems. (Not to mention that they are owned primarily by non-British corporations that have no interest in serving the public beyond profit.) Most notably, it is now too expensive for most people to ride. One London man found it cheaper to buy a car than a train ticket to go from London to Bristol. As an outsider and traveler moving through, it looks like the French union drives a hard bargain, but that they do a bang-up job holding up their end of the deal.
For almost any professional dancer, holding up their end of the deal is a foregone conclusion. The prototypical dancer psychological profile is one of tremendous dedication, diligence, and as well as a tendency towards compliance. The toil and endurance it takes to make it through the many years of training, and often pain (not to mention the all too often abuse) to attain that level of capability deserves a payout of respect from their employers, arts policy-makers, and sponsors. Alvin Ailey is the premier, quintessentially American company. While the USA has a number of excellent dance companies such as American Ballet Theatre and the Martha Graham company, those companies can and do consist of many dancers from all over the world. And rightly so. However, as the top African American/black American* dance company, Ailey is arguably one of the few companies that would cease to be what it is if it were to be populated with a majority of dancers from other nations. They are the crown jewel of American dance. Their 35% pay gap is nothing short of a scandal- both artistically and from a racial and social justice perspective. The Ailey dancers are right and righteous to demand better professional recognition and pay. And I admire the dancers in Argentina for fighting for the survival of their professional art form. We might be inconvenienced by strikes and protests, but it is good to stop and ask ourselves what it is that these people are fighting for and if they are keeping up their side of the bargain.
*I have met African American/black American with different preferences on how they are referred to, so I will use both terms to respect as many people as possible.