Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Talk about a disconnect.

A museum in New York that celebrates the labor movement as part of its mission is doing everything in its power to make sure its employees are unable to organize. Educators and tour guides at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which tells the story of poor Jewish immigrants, have been working with the UAW for over a year and have met nothing but roadblocks from museum management in their attempts to form a union.

What doesn't management get? Have they ever checked out their own museum?

It's just another example of the bosses (no matter where) being totally out of touch with reality.

According to its own mission statement:

"The Lower East Side Tenement Museum's mission is to promote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a gateway to America."

I might mention that among the Honorary Trustees of the museum is one U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton who is today counting on union voters in Ohio to turn around her campaign.

The museum has 40 per diem workers — who work on a flexible schedule and are paid for the days they work. Nearly all of them have joined the union, said Eden Schulz, recording secretary of Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers.

Schulz points out, "The workers really are the exhibit. Without them it would just be an empty, old tenement building."

The workers’ complaints include conditions endemic to the original tenements: extreme temperatures and cramped rooms. The workers want pay increases, benefits, guaranteed hours and improved breaks.

“We teach civic lessons about workers who unionized in the Lower East Side,” Tal Bar-Zemer, a costumed tour guide at the museum, told the Villager. “We felt the union would be a really wonderful thing, especially given the historical lessons that [the museum] teaches.”

The bosses, as always, didn't see it that way.

H.R. Britton, a tour guide who leads up to six tours a day at the museum told the Villager last May she was surprised that management was resistant to the staff forming a union.

“I find it really ironic,” he said. “You lionized the unions, but you don’t want one under your roof. How does that square with the peoples’ lives you eulogize?

“It hurts me to see a lack of integrity like that,” Britton added, “Especially at a museum whose mission I love.”

The museum refused to recognize a card count process which showed almost every worker had signed on and said it instead wanted to go through the NLRB, a process that can take forever and which union organizers will tell you allows the bosses lots of time to intimidate workers.

A statement released several months ago from the workers read in part:
"Through our work here, we have gained historical perspective and are inspired by the stories of young reformers who collectively organized to improve their own workplaces. In recent months, we have endeavored to have a collective exchange regarding developments and changes in the Museum, and it has become clear that unionizing is the solution that will allow us to bargain in good faith at the table as equals with management representatives over issues including wages, benefits and job security. Strengthening the foundation of The Tenement by making educator jobs more stable is crucial to ensuring integrity in its coming expansions. We recognize collective bargaining as our way to invest in the future of the institution and contribute to the strength of this foundation."

Maybe fighting unions is the new message the museum bosses would like to educate the public about. If so they ought to think about a new mission statement.

"I've been there four and a half years and I've never gotten a raise," said Lethia Nall. "I've had to work hours without a break in a cramped tenement apartment with no air-conditioning in the summer and minimal heat in the winter."

The bosses would tell you that just shows how realistic their museum is.

Maia Macek, 34, said that while she has received no wage increase in her two years working at the museum, administrators have given themselves pay hikes over the same period. Macek also complained that employees are sometimes repudiated, or even fired, at will — a practice, she and other educators said, they would like to see change.

The bosses would tell tough luck, they are called bosses because they like to boss...and bossing is tough work and deserves more pay.

As my bubbe, of blessed memory, used to say, "amerikanish naroyum ."

Don't hold me to the spelling but the Yiddish means pretty much what it sounds like.

Her husband, an old leftie from way back, would have probably just told the bosses to "ayin kafin yan" which roughly translates to "go shit in the ocean."

The following is from Statin Island Live.

Tenement museum tour guides say they want benefits, union

Tour guides at a museum that re-enacts the lives of poor Jewish immigrants say museum management won't let them form a labor union.

Dozens of educators and costumed interpreters at the Tenement Museum planned a protest Tuesday evening outside a 20th anniversary dinner at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers. The guides prepared a timeline of union history to dramatize their cause, including events covered on the museum's own tours.

The guides who take visitors through the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side building have been trying to join Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers for more than a year. The guides said that most earn about $17 per hour, with no regular pay increases, job security or health benefits.

"It is very disappointing that a museum that celebrates labor history as part of its mission would refuse to recognize the right of their own employees to form a union," said Lethia Nall, a museum educator.

A call to the museum wasn't immediately returned Tuesday. The museum's employees said the majority have signed union cards, but the museum is seeking hearings with the National Labor Relations Board to challenge the move.

The museum's landmark building on Orchard Street is preserved as a homestead of about 7,000 working class residents and poor immigrants who arrived there between 1863 and 1935.

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