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The Tenement Museum Organizes


One of my very favorite museums in the country is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It does an absolutely wonderful job of taking you into a lost world of real hardship and horror. I can’t say enough about how good the guides are as well. I strongly recommend the sweatshop tour. I’ve done the Irish tour too. Now, you’d think that an organization that exposes people to the reality of sweatshops would treat their own workers differently. But you would be wrong. And the workers have done what the people they interpret did–they have organized into a union.

After years of failed attempts, the front-facing staff at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum have finally announced their decision to unionize. In a vote held Monday, April 15, the workers voted in favor of joining Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers) by a 96% margin.

The new union members include employees in the education, retail, and visitor services departments. The workers report low wages, scarce benefits, and unstable working conditions. These inadequate conditions, the organizers say, are unfitting of a museum that was founded to celebrate the labor struggles of immigrant families.

“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,” said Anna Szapiro, an educator and costumed interpreter at the museum, in a conversation with Hyperallergic. “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.”

Employees at the museum say that the poor working conditions at the museum bring especially high levels of employee turnover. A tour guide at the museum, they say, earns $18 an hour, while retail and visitor services workers are paid New York City’s minimum wages of $15 an hour. They add that employees are required to work three days a week, including one weekend day, but they report inconsistent and unpredictable shifts because of the museum’s changing needs, and that part-time workers are offered no health insurance or overtime compensation.

“There is a pressure on us to accept very little in order to support the mission of the museum. We care very deeply about that mission but we would be better employees who can work here longer if we had more resources,” Szapiro said.

Szapiro shared a story of another educator who had to deliver a tour, on Labor Day, on the struggles of sweatshop workers in the sweltering heat of a room with no air conditioning. Workers at the museum report that they are not paid time-and-a-half for working on federal holidays. “We’re talking to people about labor history and we’re not even walking the walk in this institution,” Szapiro told Hyperallergic. The union drive, she added, is about “being truthful to the story that we tell, and continuing the history of the very people that this museum is founded on.”

Actual sweatshop conditions on the sweatshop tour! That’s museum authenticity I’m not sure we need.

The workers are optimistic about working out a settlement. This is one case where public awareness will probably make a big difference if needed, for no museum wants this kind of negative publicity, especially one that charges upward of $20 or more for a tour and which has portrayed itself as committed to social justice.

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