The Brooklyn Academy of Music (courtesy Hadley Suter)

Last week, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City held its annual benefit gala where patrons, Hollywood stars, and art world insiders hobnobbed with each other at the starting ticket price of $2,500. Swedish singer-songwriter Neneh Cherry performed and an art auction offered works by Richard Serra and Deborah Kass, among many others. On its website, BAM reported raising over $1.8 million for its education and artistic programming.

Behind the scenes of the festive evening was a new union drive announced by BAM’s administrative workers and cinema staff. In April, the workers signed a petition to join Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers.) An election is expected to be held later in May, although a date has not been decided yet.

While they haven’t yet posed any official demands, several workers relayed their complaints to Hyperallergic, alleging worsening working conditions including the reduction of benefits, 401k matching, and healthcare, in addition to transforming full-time jobs to hourly part-time jobs, which render workers ineligible for benefits.

Kaitlyn Chandler, a video editor and motion designer who has been working at BAM for over three years, told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation that a plan to form a union has been in the making for more than a year and a half. “We noticed a lack of transparency and discrepancies in codes of standards of conduct that BAM was holding for itself,” she said. “They [BAM’s management] made a lot of unilateral changes for people who are part-time and earn minimum wage at all levels of BAM.”

BAM’s management has thus far been cautious not to take a stand on the union drive. However, in an email sent to BAM workers and forwarded to Hyperallergic, the management attached a document labeled BAM Union Fact Sheet” which explained to the workers: “The choice [to unionize] is yours, but we feel strongly that it is in your and BAM’s best interest for you to learn more about union representation before you vote in the upcoming election.”

According to the document, workers might have “less take-home pay because of Union dues” and warned that negotiations will not necessarily bring salary raises. The letter also alerts workers that they may be obligated to pay a union initiation fee or union penalties. In the case of a union strike, the letter adds, employees can “lose substantial pay and employer-paid benefits.”

In a follow-up email, the management sent an additional document with the headline “Update — How Wages and Benefits Are Negotiated” alerting workers that if a union is elected, they will no longer be able to negotiate compensation individually and that the institution is legally obligated to freeze all wage adjustments during the period of negotiations.

This correspondence left some workers upset. “They’re saying that they are presenting unbiased facts, but they aren’t. They are only talking about the thing we would lose,” Chandler told Hyperallergic. “There’s no law saying that you can’t give merit-based raises. They are doing it because they don’t want the union and they want us to vote ‘No.’”

Her colleague Jesse Trussell, a film programmer who has been working at BAM since 2013, added in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic: “They [BAM] never focus on all the benefits that we get from collectively organizing and having an official seat at the table in terms of discussing our conditions of employment.” Trussell noted that the union has been honest and transparent with workers about the fees and dues that it requires.

In an email, BAM told Hyperallergic the institution is “not taking a position with respect to the Union.” Although it declined to confirm sending the documents to workers, BAM says it has “communicated regularly with employees to provide information and encourage everyone to vote in the upcoming election.”

In response to the worker’s claims about reduced healthcare, BAM says, “No changes have been made to employees’ health benefits since the UAW filed its petition. Separately, healthcare costs rose dramatically in January 2019. BAM is absorbing much of the increase and continues to pay 80% of the employees’ premiums. We are proud to provide quality and affordable benefits to our employees.”

Answering Hyperallergic’s inquiry about pay raises, the academy says: “According to Federal labor law, discretionary merit increases based on subjective factors that are granted while a union’s petition is pending could be perceived as an improper attempt to interfere with or influence the union election.”

“We respect the employees who are interested in forming a union and are committed to making sure every voice is heard,” the institution says. “BAM will respect the decision of our employees and will work to move forward together to advance the work of the place we all love.”

The academy currently works with six unions representing security, maintenance, wardrobe, box office, projectionists, and stage staff. These unions were formed over the course of the last two centuries, and now, desk job employees at BAM are seeking to form their own.

The controversy spilled outside the walls of the academy when two BAM members posed their support for the union organizers on Twitter. Rebecca Givan, Associate Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, wrote: “New York is a union town. Does @BAM_Brooklyn realize how many of its members and patrons are union members? Please don’t use my membership money to oppose @BAM_union.” 

“BAM is supposed to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and community. We are unionizing to come close to that ideal,” Chandler told Hyperallergic. “We are doing this because we love BAM and we want to have a long career there.” In the same vein, Trussell added: “We want to dedicate our careers and our lives to this really great institution and enshrine things in a contract so that we don’t have to worry about the conditions of our employment and focus on the important work that we’re doing.”

If a BAM union is elected, the workers will be joining the recent unionization of their peers at the Tenement Museum and the New Museum. Members of Local 2110 also include workers at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and the New-York Historical Society.

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...