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Tenement Museum Workers Demand Union Rights

Clark Merrefield May 25, 2007

By Clark Merrefield

Educators employed by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum are seeking to improve their lot the same way many of their tenement-dwelling ancestors did: through unionization.

In a letter presented to museum Vice President Barry Roseman on May 2, the educators and their union, United Auto Workers Local 2110, outlined their demands, which included better wages, more consistent hours, more of a voice in how the actual work is done and clarity concerning disciplinary procedures.

The response from museum executives, according to union Recording Secretary Eden Schulz, ran contrary to the museum’s mission.

“They sent us a written response indicating that they wanted us to go to the National Labor Relations Board. The implication of the letter was that they were going to challenge the legitimacy of the bargaining unit,” Schulz said.

“It’s obviously very upsetting for an institution like the Tenement Museum to take this tack,” she added.

Educators at the Tenement Museum currently make $15 per hour, with a raise after an unpaid training period to $17 per hour. According to museum educator and union organizer Tal Bar-Zamar, schedules are sporadic, ranging from five hours per week for some educators to 40 per week for others. Neither do educators receive health benefits.

When contacted for comment, museum press liaison Dan Arnhun said that museum lawyers had advised the organization, “to be fairly brief about what we say,” concerning the workers’ organizing campaign.

“Our position has not changed,” he said. “We’ve always said that if the employees organize into a union we’ll recognize the union.”

The National Labor Relations Board is a five-member federal panel established in 1935 that settles labor disputes and determines whether a workplace has the majority support needed to authorize a collective bargaining unit, typically represented by a union.

The May 2 letter was not the first the educators presented to museum executives. In November 2006, a letter was drafted that led, according to Tal Bar-Zamar, to a “tense” but nonconfrontational, sit-down meeting with management.

Following that initial meeting, a flier was posted by museum management announcing new part-time positions and a $1 pay increase.

Bar-Zamar said the new positions and the raise were the result of a “top-down mandate, not a discussion.”

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