Rockettes refused maternity leave

Cablevision forces members of the world-famous dance troupe to sign a restrictive new labor contract.

Published October 25, 2005 11:17AM (EDT)

Radio City Rockette -- like astronaut, president, Supreme Court justice, or TV weatherman -- would seem to be one of those rarefied, nice-work-if-you-can-get-it kind of gigs that promise enormous fame and fortune and no apparent downsides. After all, what could be more fun than constant glitz, glamour, and high-kicking mirth? But it turns out there are some less-than-ideal aspects to being a Rockette: For starters, the pay's lousy and the schedule stinks. And last week things got even worse for the world-famous dance troupe, as Cablevision -- the New York entertainment conglomerate that owns Radio City Music Hall -- forced the Rockettes to accept a labor contract that denies them what we'd assumed was a basic right of modern American employment: maternity leave.

And when we say "forced," we mean it. According to published reports, on the evening of Oct. 14, Cablevision representatives interrupted the Rockettes' rehearsals and asked the dancers to immediately sign the new attenuated contract. When the women refused, security guards escorted them from the building and locked them outside -- in their street clothes, in the rain. Over the next few days, the company sent the dancers a series of threatening letters warning of dire consequences for refusing to sign; in the final letter, the company said that it had already begun holding auditions for new, non-union dancers to work as replacement Rockettes in the upcoming Christmas Spectacular, the troupe's biggest annual event. Despite the benefit cuts, the groups' union -- the American Guild of Variety Artists -- urged the dancers to give in. They eventually signed the new contract last week.

But some of the dancers have vowed to fight on, according to Matthew DeCapua, a New York City actor who has launched a grassroots campaign to restore the Rockettes' rights. (DeCapua's got a vested interest in the matter -- he dates a Radio City Rockette. He declined to put Salon in touch with any current Rockettes, explaining that the women fear reprisal from Cablevision. The company also declined to comment on the labor dispute, as did the AGVA union.)

DeCapua points out that the Rockettes generate enormous sums for Cablevision -- the Christmas spectacular is the biggest live show in the nation, seen by more than 2 million people annually at Radio City and in touring events. The Rockettes are also a huge boon for tourism in New York and the United States; Cablevision's Web site trumpets them as "a national treasure" and "a true slice of Americana." Yet each of the 200 or so Rockettes -- including those who perform only in New York and those who tour nationally -- make only about $20,000 to $24,000 per year. That's less money than is earned by the stage hands who help put on their shows, DeCapua says.

Because Cablevision's new contract provides a slight pay-raise to some dancers -- in exchange for the loss of maternity leave, the touring group's salary was raised to match that of the New York dancers -- it prompted dissension between veteran Rockettes (those for whom maternity leave is important) and younger dancers in the troupe. DeCapua says that this was part of Cablevision's grand plan: The company, he says, wants to eliminate the idea that you can work as a Rockette as your long-term career, rather than as a short-term gig. "They're saying to the women, you have the right to put on the skimpy outfits and make money for us, but not to have a career and raise a family as a Rockette," DeCapua says.

DeCapua sees the situation as a microcosm of what's happening to middle-class workers across the nation, and he's reached out to prominent New York politicians and women's groups -- the National Organization for Women, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney -- for help. So far, it's unclear what these people can do for him; NOW has promised to raise awareness, but Maloney's office has not yet reviewed DeCapua's appeal. (Clinton's office did not return calls for comment.) But DeCapua may be on to something: After all, what better way to highlight "corporate greed and the lack of ethics in the workplace," as he labels Cablevision's actions, than with this iconic gang of leggy line dancers?

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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