In Support of the PRO Act

Dance Artists’ National Collective’s Statement in Support of the PRO Act, May 2021

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would transform the dance field by giving all dance workers the right to form and join unions, whether they are hired as employees or contractors.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, dancers and choreographers are the lowest-paid artists in the U.S. NEA data indicate that the average annual salary for dance workers hovers around $31,000, but this disproportionately reflects the few in our industry who are full-time employees. Most dancers are freelancers or misclassified workers, many of whom live close to or below the federal poverty level despite the fact that jobs are concentrated in some of the most expensive cities in the U.S.

At the moment, dance workers have little power to push back when employers offer us poverty wages or fail to ensure our physical safety on the job. In a recent DANC survey, dancers reported that they do not have access to workers’ compensation, health insurance, or sick leave in the vast majority of their jobs. Almost respondents reported feeling very far from making what they considered a fair wage (corresponding to skill, experience, cost of living, and level of personal risk or investment).  As contract workers in an industry defined by scarcity, we fear that we are easily replaced.

For many, a career in dance was already unsustainable before the pandemic. Now, dancers are leaving in droves, forced out of the field we love due to structural inequity and lack of resources. In a recent Dance/NYC survey, 43 percent of independent dance workers said they were considering long-term career options outside dance. We stand to lose an entire generation of artists, especially those from marginalized backgrounds who lack generational wealth and privilege.

The PRO Act would reverse this trend by giving all dance workers the right to legally protected collective bargaining. This would change the balance of power in our field, helping us hold employers accountable and demand better wages and working conditions without fear of retaliation. The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the PRO Act, and President Joe Biden has urged Congress to send it to his desk. In the Senate, it is just three votes short of majority support.

How would the PRO Act help dancers?

1. Make it easier to form a union, and expand the types of workers eligible to unionize

Under current labor law, only W2 employees have legal protections when they organize with their fellow workers. Independent contractors don’t have these protections, and can even be penalized for taking collective action due to outdated price-fixing laws. The PRO Act solves this problem by using a simple test, called the ABC test, to determine who has the right to unionize. Under this framework, all dancers, whether they are hired as employees or independent contractors, will have the right to form unions. This means we’ll have legal protections when we advocate for better and more equitable employment terms, including improved wages and benefits, transparent contracts, safe working conditions, and more.

There is a common misconception that the use of the ABC test within the PRO Act would eliminate or even outlaw freelancing. This isn’t true. The only law that will be altered by the PRO Act is the National Labor Relations Act, which determines who has the right to form or join a union. It doesn’t change any other employment laws regarding wages or benefits. Under the PRO Act, you could still be a freelancer. You would simply gain the ability to join an existing union or form a new one. 

2. Legalize secondary strikes and boycotts

While a dancer may be employed by a choreographer or company, their work often takes place in a studio, on set, or at a venue owned by a different organization. Current law limits workers’ rights to engage in strikes or boycotts that target a “secondary” workplace like this. For example, imagine you are a member of a dance company and you and your fellow dancers decide to go on strike to protest poor working conditions. You want to picket in front of the theater where you’d normally perform. But the theater isn’t your primary employer, which means a strike on their property could be considered illegal. It could also be considered illegal if you encourage dancers from other companies that perform at the same theater to join you on your picket line, or tell people not to buy tickets to shows at the theater. The PRO Act would legalize this kind of “secondary” activity.

3. Real penalties for employers who retaliate against workers

Technically, it’s illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for trying to organize with your fellow workers. But right now, there are no serious penalties for doing so. Employers can retaliate against dancers by firing them, but also by reducing rehearsal hours or performances, recasting roles, withholding pay, or engaging in threats and other verbal or emotional abuse. The PRO Act strengthens existing law, introducing fines to deter employers from engaging in anti-union activity and financial compensation for mistreated workers.

Powerful institutions in our industry have set and maintained the status quo — which says that dancers don’t deserve a living wage — for far too long. Now, dance workers are coming together to demand fair wages and a safer, more inclusive field. Those of us who are freelancers and misclassified workers deserve the same legal rights and protections available to full-time employees. To this end, we urge our members and allies to take action: Call your U.S. Senators and tell them to pass the PRO Act! It’s time to balance the scales.


Dance Artists’ National Collective (DANC) 

Watch/listen to DANC’s info session on the PRO Act.
DANC members had an enlightening conversation with Griff Braun of AGMA and Phillip Golub of Music Workers Alliance.