Intense athleticism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when an audience watches a ballerina pirouette across a stage. Making challenging movements look effortless and graceful is part of the job, but make no mistake: ballet can be just as demanding and just as dangerous as a professional sport. Allynne Noelle knows that all too well. Noelle became a professional dancer at the age of 15. During her 17-year career, she has broken two ribs, had two metatarsal stress fractures, and tore her Lisfranc ligament midway through a performance without realizing it. Her last injury forced her off stage and into an operating room to remove the scar tissue in her right foot. Luckily, her surgery and rehabilitation were covered by workers’ compensation, but Noelle could not afford to purchase health insurance on her salary. She returned to the stage two years later, but her dance company didn’t offer her health insurance, leaving her uninsured for four years.
Unfortunately, Noelle’s story is not a unique one. The world of ballet is one filled with chronic and severe injuries, expectations that dancers will work through the pain, and too little compensation. The high risk of injury makes health insurance crucial, yet many dancers go without it. Unionization aims to solve many of these problems, but ultimately does not address them all. The labor issues in ballet have been largely ignored, but are beginning to come to the fore as dancers demand better working conditions
Too Many Injuries, Too Little Pay
Statistics on the rate of injury for ballet dancers reveal that they suffer injuries that are comparable to athletes in terms of severity. One study found that the rate of injury over an 8-month period was 61%, which is comparable to the rate of injury in contact sports like football or wrestling. Injuries frequently result in an average of 10.5 days of time lost per injury. A significant portion of these injuries were overuse injuries, caused by grueling rehearsal and performance schedules. Common overuse injuries include patellofemoral pain syndrome, rotator cuff injuries, stress fractures, and chronic hip and lower back injuries. The prevalence of overuse injuries is not surprising, given the physiological stress ballet places on the body. Common ballet positions like demi-pliés and en pointe require dancers to put a great deal of strain on their lower body, particularly their ankles and feet. Even with the most precise technique, this type of weight bearing over the course of nine-hour work days, coupled with dancers’ propensity to push through pain makes injury unavoidable.
In an interview published last week in Seminarian Casual, Justice Alito offered some important remarks about work-life balance. Asked how he has managed to balance “work and family life,” Alito answered:
I have been fortunate to have jobs that allowed me to control my work schedule to a very great degree. As an appellate judge, I have had to work very long hours, but I have largely been able to choose when and where I have done my work. I think I attended just about every one of my kids’ athletic events, concerts, and school programs. That often meant saving my work for late at night and weekends, but I was able to do that. Very few people today have this luxury, and it is hard for busy people to balance work and family life. Our society needs to do a better job of making this possible.
As OnLabor readers will be aware, unions play a critical role in making possible the kind of life that Alito rightly celebrates. Evidence for this union effect is available here, here, here, here and here. Alito himself has the capacity to enable unions to play this role, and thus to ensure that our society does a better job allowing more of us to balance work and family life.
(Thanks to Andrew Strom for calling this to our attention.)
Michael Grabell’s New Yorker piece on Case Farms’ poultry plants is a must-read. Much of it will be depressingly familiar: horrid safety and health conditions (“since 2010, more than seven hundred and fifty processing workers have suffered amputations”); repeated use of immigration sanctions to deter organizing activity (“the union received a letter saying that it had come to the company’s attention that nine of its employees might not be legally authorized to work in the United States…[s]even were on the union organizing committee…[a]ll were fired”; food workers wearing diapers because they aren’t granted bathroom breaks. But in this 2017 version of The Jungle, one wonders how – if at all – the relevant federal agencies will respond. Hopefully not, as Grabell rightly worries, by increasing immigration enforcement during labor disputes.
Today is International Women’s Day, and many women around the country are participating in a strike that has been billed as “A Day Without a Woman.” The action is intended to highlight the economic importance and impact of women on society, and it was organized following the Women’s March on January 21. CNN reports that American women “aren’t the only ones taking to the streets.” In Ireland, women and pro-choice activists are expected to rally across the country in a day of action dubbed “Strike 4 Repeal,” aimed at repealing Ireland’s eighth amendment, which places the right to life of an unborn child on equal footing with the right to life of the mother. In Australia, thousands rallied in Melbourne, demanding economic justice and reproductive rights for women around the world. In the Philippines, women’s rights activists marched to the embassy in Manila, carrying signs calling for employment and discrimination reforms. Protests also took place in Rome and Moscow.
Politico weighs in on Trump’s revised executive order, noting that attention “may now shift to the refugee-related provisions” in the order. The new order exempts valid visa holders and eliminates the provision that called for the U.S. to prioritize religious minorities (i.e. non-Muslims) in refugee admissions, but left in place a 120-day suspension of the refugee resettlement program (although Syrian refugees are now barred only temporarily, whereas before they were barred indefinitely).
At the Atlantic, Alana Semuels interviews David Weil, an Obama appointee who directed the Department of Labor’s wage-and-hour division, about the future of DOL under Trump. One of Weil’s big worries concerns “the overlay of immigration policies on…the labor market.” As Weil put it, “There’s a lot of writing on the wall that deeply, deeply concerns me.”
In international news, Argentina’s main labor union led a mass picket on Tuesday to protest job cuts and pay raises. According to Reuters, the picket attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators and took place in the midst of a two-day teachers’ strike. The protests also come at a bad time for Argentinian President Mauricio Macri: key congressional elections are slated to take place in October, and Macri needs his political coalition to do well “in order for him to keep pushing his economic reforms through Congress and position himself for re-election in 2019.”
There’s a new piece of student writing in the most recent Harvard Law Review that offers a different take on the Board’s Columbia University decision regarding graduate student union rights. The piece focuses on the Board’s use of empirical evidence in the decision, applauds it in part, but criticizes the Board for what the piece calls “cherry picking.” Worth reading.
Yesterday, Republican lawmakers “proposed sweeping changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws” in the form of House Study Bill 84 and Senate File 213. As the Des Moines Register explains, the new bills would limit mandatory negotiations for most public-sector union workers (public safety workers such as firefighters and police officers are exempted) to base wages only; negotiations over issues like health insurance and overtime would be prohibited. The bills would also require unions to go through a certification process before each new contract negotiation. Additional coverage is available at the New Republic, which also provides a brief historical overview of collective bargaining law in Iowa.
The New York Times reports that New York is attempting to revive the once-thriving, now-troubled garment industry. City officials have increased efforts to create a new garment industry in Sunset Park, including a $115-million renovation of the city-owned Brooklyn Army Terminal, which will expand manufacturing space by 500,000 feet. They have also partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America in order to assist companies with modernizing their manufacturing processes and workplaces.
Can Andy Puzder survive? That’s the question Politico asks, noting that Puzder has faced allegations of beating his wife, began his career working for “one of the most notorious mob lawyers in the country,” and just admitted that he employed an undocumented immigrant as his house cleaner and didn’t pay taxes on her employment. Despite these scandals, however, Puzder is “somehow . . . still standing.”
In other news, the New York Times observes that the appeals panel that heard oral argument yesterday in State of Washington v. Donald Trump “appear[ed] skeptical of Trump’s travel ban.” The Times also notes that nearly 130 companies, most of them from the tech industry, filed an amicus brief in support of Washington State.
When we talk about disappearing jobs, we often think of men. But as the New York Times notes, women are also part of the trend. In the United States, the “share of prime-age women bringing home a paycheck rose at the end of World War II” and continued increasing during the 1970s and 1980s before it peaked in 1999 at 77 percent. In the early 2000s, however, women’s participation in the labor force began decreasing — making the United States one of the only major countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development not to have a rising rate of female workforce participation. During the recession, that rate plunged further, and it has failed to bounce back. In 2015, only 73.7 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 were in the work force.
Although Trump met with several union leaders on Monday, the gathering was limited to representatives of the construction and building trades unions. Public sector and service industry unions — some of the most powerful supporters of Democrats in recent elections — were not invited. As Newsweek explains, the meeting may be “a sign of how Trump may seek to split organized labor as president.” Still, the excluded unions, such as the SEIU, aren’t backing down. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told Newsweek that although Trump poses challenges to her union, the threats are “not existential,” and the SEIU is preparing to fight for the same blue-collar workers Trump managed to win over.
Taxpayers get stuck with the cost of supporting workers in the fast food industry. That’s the thesis of a recent Los Angeles Times article articulating why Andy Puzder as Secretary of Labor gives major cause for concern. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that Puzder’s CKE Restaurants, which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s brands, collects a taxpayer-funded subsidy of about $247 million a year. According to NELP, that’s what it takes to “offset poverty wages and keep [CKE’s] low-wage front-line workers and their families from economic disaster.” The issue is particularly salient because Puzder opposes an increase in the minimum wage, but evidence exists that even modest minimum wage increases “help to cut the need of low-wage workers for assistance from Medicaid and other programs.”