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Tenement Museum in New York.
Tenement Museum in New York.

New York Tenement Museum Staff Votes to Unionize

Front-facing staff members of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which focuses on the history of urban migration, labor, and immigration, voted seventy-two to three in favor of unionizing and joining the UAW (United Auto Workers) Local 2110 last week. Employees of the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Historical Society, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the New Museum are also in the UAW.

The vote comes after over a decade of failed unionization attempts by staffers in the museum’s education, retail, and visitor services departments, who cite poor working conditions, including low wages, unpredictable and inconsistent work hours, and the lack of benefits like overtime or health insurance for part-time workers. Hyperallergic reports that a tour guide earns $18, while retail and visitor service workers are paid $15, New York City’s minimum wage.

Museum management blocked previous attempts at unionization, which happened first in 2007 then in 2014; this year’s success marks New York City’s second museum unionization in 2019, following the January formation of the New Museum Union.

“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,” said Tenement Museum president Kevin Jennings. “We look forward to engaging in a productive collective bargaining process.”

Anna Szapiro, an educator and costumed interpreter at the museum, told Hyperallergic: “We’re talking to people about labor history and we’re not even walking the walk in this institution . . . 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. 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.”

UAW president Maida Rosenstein told ||Gothamist|: “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. 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.”