The Tenement Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

After years of failed attempts, the front-facing staff at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum have finally announced their decision to unionize. In a vote held Monday, April 15, the workers voted in favor of joining Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers) by a 96% margin.

The new union members include employees in the education, retail, and visitor services departments. The workers report low wages, scarce benefits, and unstable working conditions. These inadequate conditions, the organizers say, are unfitting of a museum that was founded to celebrate the labor struggles of immigrant families.

“We are a museum that prides itself on sharing the history of working-class people in New York and the Lower East Side, and sharing the difficult and successful stories of working-class labor,” said Anna Szapiro, an educator and costumed interpreter at the museum, in a conversation with Hyperallergic. “It’s only appropriate that the museum would then, in turn, do everything it could in order help its own workers to achieve that success.”

Employees at the museum say that the poor working conditions at the museum bring especially high levels of employee turnover. A tour guide at the museum, they say, earns $18 an hour, while retail and visitor services workers are paid New York City’s minimum wages of $15 an hour. They add that employees are required to work three days a week, including one weekend day, but they report inconsistent and unpredictable shifts because of the museum’s changing needs, and that part-time workers are offered no health insurance or overtime compensation.

“There is a pressure on us to accept very little in order to support the mission of the museum. We care very deeply about that mission but we would be better employees who can work here longer if we had more resources,” Szapiro said.

Szapiro shared a story of another educator who had to deliver a tour, on Labor Day, on the struggles of sweatshop workers in the sweltering heat of a room with no air conditioning. Workers at the museum report that they are not paid time-and-a-half for working on federal holidays. “We’re talking to people about labor history and we’re not even walking the walk in this institution,” Szapiro told Hyperallergic. The union drive, she added, is about “being truthful to the story that we tell, and continuing the history of the very people that this museum is founded on.”

And yet, Szapiro stresses that she is optimistic about signing a fair contract with the museum, and describes the negotiations with the management as positive. “We were able to reach an amicable agreement at the end,” she says.

When asked about these claims, the Tenement Museum responded: “We have just begun the collective bargaining process with our unionized employees and so are not at liberty to discuss matters directly impacted by this process.”

Workers of the Tenement Museum have attempted to unionize twice in the past, but in both cases were blocked by management. The first attempt at unionization occurred in 2007. The second attempt in 2014 was successfully quelled as well. This time, the workers report a more accepting management, which they attribute to the museum’s new leadership under President Kevin Jennings, a former Obama administration appointee who comes from an education and activism background.

Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110 UAW, told Hyperallergic that this time around, the Tenement Museum distinguished itself from other museums by remaining neutral in the elections on a union. Rosenstein attributes the change of policy to the new president, but also notes that previous attempts came in times of a different political atmosphere, when “There wasn’t the level of activism that we see in New York now.”

The Tenement Museum is the second New York City museum to successfully unionize in 2019. The first was the New Museum, whose workers voted in favor of a union in January. Workers at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and New-York Historical Society are also members of UAW (United Auto Workers) Local 2110.

“This is a time when more workers at cultural institutions are looking at unionization,” Rosenstein said. “There’s a growing disparity in the difference between the top echelon of some these cultural institutions and people who are working on the day to day level. A lot of those talented and educated employees work for low wages and without overtime compensation.”

“The Museum will bargain in good faith to try to arrive at a collective bargaining agreement that meets the needs of both the museum and its employees,” the Tenement Museum told Hyperallergic in an email. “We look forward to engaging in a productive collective bargaining process.”

Editors note 4/19/19 11:39am: This article has been updated to include a quote from Szapiro about her optimism for the negotiations, and has been updated to reflect that the claims made to Hyperallergic came from multiple employees of the Tenement Museum, not just Szapiro.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...