A few weeks ago, there was a huge outcry about the (then) latest audition notice from Royal Opera House, and the pittance offered as payment; Article19 originally drew attention to it, and refused to publish the notice, and the grumblings grew from there.
As we all know, the situation arose because Equity agreed a fee with ROH which has turned out to be embarrassingly and insultingly low, so now Equity has had to have a rather awkward conversation with ROH. Even more embarrassingly, ROH hasn't yet deigned to respond, but we don't want to talk about that in case we upset them.
Large opera companies paying very small fees is sadly not new to us. It hasn't been that long since the scandal over ENO's fees and their ridiculous contractual assumptions; back then, the dancers were effectively on their own to resolve the situation, with Equity making comments about the help they could have offered if they had been involved. (Source: vague fuzzy memory).
So, back then, dancers had to fight for themselves, and they managed to achieve results. The same happened when Kylie Minogue's people and Coca Cola assumed they could find dancers who would work for them for free, and had a rude awakening with the #paythedancers hashtag and the general backlash.
Fast forward a few years, and we now have a similar situation, but this time, we now have an Equity Dance rep and the EFDN, and a new challenge for them to prove themselves with. But all this is doing instead is showing us exactly how many misconceptions are floating around and how they are muddying things.
You'd think that now, dancers could make a stand and refuse to put themselves forward for work which pays so dismally poorly, but living in London is so hideously expensive that morals can be ephemeral, and dancers desperate for money and work will let everyone else down by applying for these jobs. And this is because we're not networked and not supporting each other.
The problem here is that if dancers speak out, they could have an enormously powerful and effective voice. But only if they do speak out. And yes, if they had a powerful and effective union too, but as an industry we can only make a stand if we boycott those who pay shit wages; it undermines us if new graduates decide that they'll work for so little money.
It would be fantastic if there was a way to bring dancers together to marshal their support against any other similar campaigns, but we all know that won't happen...
We keep hearing that there were not any dancers as Equity members before Nicholas Keegan's appointment and the launch of EFDN. We also keep hearing that EFDN is impotent unless more dancers become members.
This is rubbish: there has certainly been dancer membership over the years, even if not in significant numbers, because of the perception that Equity isn't able to represent the dance community. But they have had those members throughout, and it's disturbing to see that they've effectively been thrown out the back window to suit PR facts.
Equity may not have as many dancer members as it likes, but it is still required to advocate on behalf of them. Furthermore, it is only through decisive action and achieving results that it can sell itself to undecided and or sceptical non-members. It is disturbing to see Equity's recurring message "we can't do more unless you join us"; that offers no guarantees to dancers who don't necessarily have the spare funds to shell out for unnecessary memberships, nor does it imply support for those who have already signed up.
Going back to the fees for this contract, the so-called Equity rates (Equity minimum rates, if you please), are widely cited across the industry, yet these rates are far below what any professional dancer should expect to receive. At least the independent choreographers - themselves constrained by limited adhoc project funding - respect their dancers sufficiently to pay significantly above this rate, as they at least value their dancers' worth. But the message that the Equity rates carries is that professional dancers are not worth being paid an appropriate or even respectable level of pay.
The biggest misconception of all, however, is probably whose side Equity is on. If it was on the side of its members, it wouldn't have negotiated that ridiculous fee in the first place.
So there are a lot of misconceptions as to the role of Equity, what it is they are meant to do, and also what dancers can do independently which I think is far more important.
We've seen what the collective power of dancers can achieve: for example with the battles with ENO, with the Kylie video or the Coca Cola video. But dancers aren't typically empowered: they need work, so they apply for work, even if the pay is crap. And this is too often because of people thinking that Equity rates are in any way professionally acceptable, which completely undermines and undervalues the people working in the profession.
The important thing to explore, however, is the role of the industrial union, and how Equity does - or does not - fit into this.
For all that Margaret Thatcher did to try and break the unions, they still remain as an essential resource to protect employees from unfair working conditions, unfair pay, inappropriate contractual conditions - for example ENO's requirement that all dancers were required to take and pay for class outside the coverage of their contracts - and any other conditions which professional dancers need protection from. This is why people pay them a membership fee: so that they can be guaranteed protection, advocacy and representation no matter what happens. Dancers do not, under any circumstances, pay them to fluff and fail to deliver on these requirements.
Back to the pay issue, this is not something which Equity has delivered on. The only positive action so far has been EFDN's press release which highlighted how poorly dancers are paid - and how much better-paid people are under other unions. It's more than regrettable that EFDN was forced to retract the press release immediately, as they could have actually gained positive support through the press launch to influence the negotiations. All we got instead were weak and fluffy excuses once the press statement was retracted.
What all this shows us is that other unions are able to negotiate decent salaries for their staff, and Equity is not capable of doing this. For all its years of working in the entertainment industry, it cannot set a respectable salary for performers, nor can it take decisive action when it is needed.
I'm working on a project with classical musicians, and it's an eye-opener to see how differently things work there, as they have an effective and powerful union (Musicians' Union) to ensure that all professionals are paid what they are worth, and at a rate far higher than dancers receive. We also see how other members of staff - eg the oft-cited ROH box office staff (BECTU) - are paid more than the dancers are, and this is because they too are members of an effective union.
So where does this leave dancers? Those of us in London live in a world where unions will force strikes, make unreasonable demands and create maximum chaos in order to reinforce a point on behalf of just a few of its members. From what we have seen, Equity has barely managed to blow its nose for fear of upsetting anyone. And seriously, considering the ridiculously low fees which Equity negotiates, should anyone actually care if ROH decides to proceed without Equity in future?
In case it's escaped people's notice, a new ROH contract has been issued in the last few days, and the performance fee (if not the weekly fee) is higher than the fee under dispute. Equity is clear that this pay rise is independent of them. So does this mean that we do not actually need Equity to negotiate improved fees - especially if it is not able to do so?
What we need is a union which works. Maybe it can be Equity, if they actually wake up to their members' needs and to do something about them. But maybe it has to be something else: a new independent body which doesn't care about making friends and placating egos, but about ensuring that its members get the best offers possible and the industry respect they deserve. After all, if ROH was the good friend they're meant to be, they wouldn't have taken two or more weeks already to decide how to respond to the whole pay increase thing. And any decent union would have whipped them into shape two weeks ago.
Our beloved industry has so many problems and flaws already, the last thing we need is an industry and especially a union which perpetuates them. Again, we really need a union which can change things. And if the union isn't Equity, then what now? Do we use an existing union, or create a new one by ourselves? Because we're worth far too much to settle for what the top-earning NPOs will deign to pay us.
And at some point, we really need to start fighting for each other, and not independently of each other.