Employees of the Tenement Museum, a Lower East Side cultural institution centered on immigrant and labor history, voted to unionize this week. The workers will be joining the Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers), whose president, Maida Rosenstein, said employees are seeking better wages, less unpredictable shift scheduling changes, and better benefits.
"Most of the Tenement Museum employees are not high-paid, and some of the work is very insecure and precarious in that they don’t have guarantees of hours, or benefits at all,” Rosenstein told Gothamist. “They have shift changes they have to contend with, and without a union there’s no process for resolving issues that might arise with management.”
Monday's vote comes on the heels of two unsuccessful attempts to unionize in previous years. The Museum says it will engage in collective bargaining with the newly unionized workers, who voted 72-3 in favor of joining the union.
Vocal members of this now-unionized group work in various front-facing roles around the museum; some are in the gift shop, some are costumed docents, some are in visitor services. The part-time staff does not get paid overtime, nor do they have access to health insurance through the museum. Employee turnover is high, staffers say, and hourly wages vary, with tour guides making $18 an hour while visitor services workers earn a $15 minimum wage.
"We’re talking to people about labor history and we’re not even walking the walk in this institution,” Anna Szapiro, an educator and costumed interpreter at the museum, told Hyperallergic.
The Tenement Museum vote comes on the heels of New Museum workers unionizing in January. “I think there is a lot of interest from people in the younger generation in organizing because so many people are working in situations where their work is very precarious,” Rosenstein says. “We saw that at the New Museum, and also the Brooklyn Academy of Music… I think there’s a lot of interest, among workers in cultural institutions especially.”
In an email statement sent to Gothamist, Tenement Museum President Kevin Jennings said: “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. We look forward to engaging in a productive collective bargaining process. As we have just begun this process with our unionized employees we are not at liberty to discuss matters directly impacted by this process.”
The Tenement Museum was founded in 1988, and is a National Historic Site. It’s estimated that over 15,000 immigrants lived in the two tenement buildings that make up the institution between 1863 and 2011.