The Tenement Museum Union has filed a complaint with the labor board against the New York museum, accusing its leadership of unfair labor practices following a round of layoffs that affected the majority of the fledgling union’s members.
The Lower East Side institution, which has been closed due to the pandemic since March, laid off 76 employees last week, as first reported by Hyperallergic. That number reduced the union’s bargaining unit from 89 staff members to just 12, and included all 71 of the museum’s part-time educators—92 percent of the education staff.
“The statements and conduct of some museum representatives have made it all too clear that the pandemic closure is being used as an opportunity to circumvent our unionization,” wrote the union in a letter to museum leadership alerting them to the complaint and shared on Twitter. They are “deeply dismayed,” they added, that the museum made the layoffs “without notice, severance, or bargaining with our union.”
The union contends that the museum’s treatment of its workers stands in opposition to the institution’s mission of celebrating the lives—and labor struggles—of immigrant families who lived in New York City tenements in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
A Tenement Museum spokesperson declined to comment on “the legal aspects of the former employee’s claims.” But, the representative added, “we can speak to the human element. These are extremely difficult times, we can understand the pain and anger of these former employees. However, we took these steps to put us in the best position to maintain the long term viability of the institution…. We will continue, as we have from the beginning, to bargain with the union in good faith.”
Museum workers voted to unionize in April 2019, with 96 percent of staff supporting efforts to join Local 2110 UAW, United Auto Workers. The union represents a growing number of cultural workers in the city as museum staffs across the country have pushed to organize.
When New York entered lockdown in May, the union’s bargaining unit was still in negotiations with the museum. It was looking to raise wages and increase benefits for public-facing workers, most of whom did not receive health insurance.
But the onset of the global health crisis plunged the museum into a financial free fall, given that the institution relies on admissions and gift shop sales for more than 75 percent of its revenue.
On March 13, the museum laid off 13 employees, furloughed 30 full-time staff members, and told the 71 educators that they would only be paid through March 20. Museum president Morris Vogel took a 99 percent salary reduction. The cuts reduced operating costs on the museum’s $11.5 million budget by 70 percent.
The institution also launched an emergency push for donations on Give Lively, a fundraising platform for nonprofits. To date, they’ve raised nearly $430,000, plus two Facebook fundraisers raising over $30,000 and $4,000. (Union members Cara-Lynne Thomas and Nicole Daniels responded by launching a mutual aid fund to support out-of-work staff, raising over $28,000 on GoFundMe.)
More aid came in the form of a $1.4 million loan from the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program on April 27, which ended the furloughs for full-time staff. Even so, the museum is planning on operating at 50 percent of its normal budget for 2021.
There is no end in sight for the closure—the state ultimately excluded museums from Phase 4 of the city’s reopening plan, leaving institutions in something of a purgatory. But even if that were not the case, the Tenement Museum is particularly challenged by the constraints of social distancing, given its close quarters—a defining characteristic of New York City’s historic tenement buildings. According to the union, museum management cited the delay of museum reopenings as the impetus for the layoffs even as it announced planned outdoor walking tours of the neighborhood.
In its complaint, the union demands that the museum rescind layoffs and return to the bargaining table. “We ask you to ensure that the museum live up to its professed mission of educating about the important historical struggle of immigrants for labor and human rights in this country,” they write, “by recognizing the rights of the museum’s own unionized workforce.”