The San Francisco Ballet School Federation of Teachers was born out of the all-too-familiar need to find support during a period of intense turmoil in our workplace. From 1984 through 1986 the San Francisco Ballet Association was going through a change in direction and management, and there were many signs that the change was reaching deep into our division, the School. One woman came in to pick up her paycheck to find she'd been fired. A couple of formerly full-time teachers were dropped to part time without explanation. And the firing of the School's Director, splashed across the local newspapers, was close to scandalous.
We began with a gathering late in the evening, after our last classes, to air and share our concerns. Because artists, especially dancers, are notoriously naive about business matters, we invited spouses with both business and legal expertise, and the consensus was plain: go union. It seemed only logical; in our business the performers are union (AGMA), the stagehands (LATSE) and the musicians are union (AFM). Why not the teachers?
Following our official chartering, we elected a teacher with 28 years at the San Francisco Ballet as President, Marlene Fitzpatrick Swendsen. Charter members included Henry Berg, Leslie Crockett, Christine Bering, Lynda Meyer, Susan Sotirkos, Zola Dishong, Mary Wood, and Anatole Vilzak. One of our most enthusiastic supporters was Mr. Vilzak, a living link with the Imperial Russian Ballet of our heritage, who at age 90 still taught 2-4 classes a week.
The two months between that first meeting and the representation election on November 14, 1986 were spent in countless late-night meetings, confrontations with management, soul searching and yes, some defections from our cause. But on November 14 we prevailed, and then began the arduous task of creating a contract from scratch.
At that time we had only memos of agreement which the company manager had written without our input. There was no set procedure for grievances and no job security clause. Sabbatical leave hadn't even been imagined. When we began comparing our individual agreements, we learned that there was no uniformity as to who was covered by health insurance; widely varying weeks of paid vacation; different rates of pay for teachers of equal category; and different percentage increases on yearly wages.
The feeling among the teachers was that all should have the security of knowing that they were working from the same set of rules. Our moment of triumph came when the management lawyer indicated it was about time someone tidied up this situation!
Since the contract, grievance procedures and salary schedules have been established, and the ballet association has hired a professional personnel manager to keep accurate records and compile a history of past practices.
For the first time, the teachers in the school had a definition of work load, class size, an equitable pay scale with a 4% raise built in for the life of the three year contract, vacations, and guidelines for the yearly evaluations. The thirty page contract details such things as the professional responsibilities of the teachers, benefits, including maternity leaves, personal leaves and, for the first time, the right to ask for a sabbatical leave. While the granting of sabbaticals is left to the discretion of the employer, the very fact that teachers could now ask for a sabbatical leave to pursue a plan of study, dance or travel was a major step forward.
In the two years since its ratification there have been several occasions when we were grateful for the protection of our contract and the backing of the AFT.
(Mary Wood, contributor)