Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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Part II: Will pay equity and unionization help ‘Change Berkshire Culture’?

The creators of Change Berkshire Culture called the minimum wage many “front-facing” employees now earn “appalling.” A majority of the staff at MASS MoCA has pledged to vote to form a union to change that.

This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read the first installment here.

Obviously people want social calm, but if you do not let clever and ingenious people to participate, obviously there must be some dormant volcano that will erupt, sooner or later.Lech Walesa, founder of the Polish Solidarity movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner

Change Berkshire Culture (CBC) erupted on Instagram about a month ago, upsetting the social calm at many of the county’s cultural organizations. But deeper and broader rumblings had been afoot among at least one Berkshire County cultural mainstay much longer than that.

After more than half a year of under-the-radar preparations, a “supermajority” of the 127 staff members at MASS MoCA has pledged to vote to form a union in solidarity across departments. They’re organizing under the auspices of Local 2110, a chapter based in New York, which also represents MoMA; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the New Museum; and the Tenement Museum, among other organizations.

In response to news of their employees’ effort, MASS MoCA’s management provided a statement: “We have received the petition for union representation and respect our employees’ legal right to organize. We are committed to working in good faith to ensure a positive and productive work culture, and are evaluating our next steps.”

Amanda Tobin, MASS MoCA’s associate director of education and press spokesperson for the museum’s unionization effort, called that response “better than nothing. We’re all in this transition moment, and we don’t know what people will say. But ‘in good faith’ is a good sign, for sure.”

Just as Change Berkshire Culture was inspired by the national effort Change The Museum, MASS MoCA was inspired by recent organizing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Portland Art Museum, and MFA Boston, and their team received guidance from those colleagues on how to go about the “extensive” process.

Those other efforts seem to be working, though not without resistance. Boston won their election in November 2020 and are now working on a contract. Philadelphia’s staff won their election last spring after a “nasty battle,” according to Tobin, where management tried to differentiate the “professional” employees from more “blue collar” staff. She calls this tactic “a patronizing way of being classist about who gets to be together in solidarity.”

Image courtesy The Museum Union Wave Dossier

Portland is not as far along in the process, as management there “is saying now that fewer people are eligible for membership than the union says are eligible.” That, said Tobin, is another way of weakening the effort. “Not too many nonprofits will come out and say ‘we hate unions,’ but they’ll find other ways.” (You can follow the history and progress of the national museum unionization movement at The Museum Union Wave Dossier.)

The unionization push and Change Berkshire Culture are not directly related, but are both manifestations of the “momentum across the arts and cultural sector right now,” wherein employees are demanding consistent health benefits for all, job protections, transparency in salary structuring, and, above all else, pay equity. CBC has been actively promoting MASS MoCA’s effort, and has gotten the ball rolling on the pay equity front with an invitation to cultural organization staff to share salary information to a public Google Doc.

Tobin called the salary revelations a “delicate” topic, but another MASS MoCA organizer, Maro Elliott, who serves as the museum’s manager of institutional giving, is happy to share how much money she makes. “Making salaries public is essential to pay equity. I think it [forming a union] will raise salaries across the board, and that’s really important to me. That’s why I’m in this.”

Both Elliott and Tobin are grateful for their salaries, and Tobin specifically credits her supervisor with advocating for her, and pushing for her pay rate, which is above the living wage for Berkshire County. But, she countered, “It shouldn’t depend on who your supervisor is. It shouldn’t be that you got the lucky straw and have someone fighting for you in your corner. It should just be how things are.”

Kari Daly, who is employed at MASS MoCA, supports the unionizing effort at the museum. Image courtesy the MASS MoCA Union Instagram

The creators of Change Berkshire Culture called the minimum wage that many “front-facing” employees now earn “appalling.” According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, a worker in a four-person household living in Berkshire County would earn a living wage with an annual salary of $46,342.40. A full-time, minimum-wage employee earns $26,530.

Fast food is considered the most inequitable sector in the economy, but would-be low-level employees at cultural organizations might be better off choosing it. Though organizations often claim to be working toward the goal of a diverse work force, CBC founders claim: “You’re never going to recruit and hire diverse candidates [if they] can make more working at Dunkin’ Donuts, which is documented. You can make more at Dunkin’ Donuts than you can at MASS MoCA. In addition to all the other barriers confronting people of color entering this field, related to education, and access, all of that, you’re gonna underpay them? It’s just perpetuating this system of elitist, privileged people who can afford to take these jobs.”

Tracy Moore, interim director at MASS MoCA, wrote in response to a question about the salary disparities evidenced by the salary spreadsheet: “Though our campus is huge, our operating budget is comparatively small. MASS MoCA has been working hard to make our target compensation more equitable, taking into account our budget size as well as regional pay scales. COVID-19 notwithstanding, it is our intention to continue this work in order to attract the most diverse and talented staff. While we’ve made progress, we know we still have work to do.”

Although it’s been illegal since 1935 to prevent employees from discussing their salaries amongst themselves, there’s been a strong cultural taboo against the airing of this information. It’s easier to talk about sex, politics, or mental health than it is to talk about money.

MASS MoCA Union supporter John Tibbetts works in the museum’s Performing Arts department. Photo courtesy the Union’s Instagram

But those barriers have been breaking down gradually ever since the dawn of the Internet. Today, the finances of any nonprofit organization are publicly available online through GuideStar, though only executive compensation tends to be listed there. In addition, sites such as Indeed invite employees to share salary information. Over the past few years, more intimate efforts emerged. The American theater community developed a spreadsheet similar to the CBC’s that allows professionals in the industry to anonymously list their salaries.

Janis Martinson, executive director of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, thinks the sector is generally on board with change. “I don’t think, at the end of the day, that any of us really assumes or believes that the status quo is unilaterally a good thing.” A 2021 goal for Martinson and the Mahaiwe board and staff is to conduct a staffing analysis that will “look at external benchmarks and ask how we measure up.” This would entail comparing salaries to those of comparably-sized organizations locally, nationally, and in other industries, too, and deciding where the Mahaiwe’s aspirations for salaries should land. “It’s a multi-year project to get from where we are to where we think we should be.”

But pay equity was on her radar even as she took over in January 2020, said Martinson, and she intended to confront it once the crisis of keeping people employed and insured during the theater’s prolonged shutdown was past. “This wasn’t a year when it was blatantly obvious that we could make a lot of salary adjustments.”

On the worker side, the past year’s fissures and pressures sped up the pace of organizing. Tobin of MASS MoCA said: “The Covid pandemic exposed what has always been under the surface about a lot of systemic issues in our country, and in our institutions. People have more time on their hands, and are at home, so we can connect, and push forward things that maybe were talked about but always [took] the backburner.”

What progress and changes would the MASS MoCA organizers like to see in in place by Spring 2022? Maro Elliott and Amanda Tobin both expect and hope to have a mutually agreeable contract. Added Elliott: “It’s my hope that other cultural organizations will be inspired by the efforts that we and so many others are making, and that the act of unionizing as a cultural nonprofit will be much more commonplace and less radical or unusual.”

MoMA employee Athena Holbrook and union organizer Maida Rosenstein. Photo courtesy StoryCorps

Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, has been organizing workers for 30 years, and agrees that a contract in place within a year is a workable goal. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the New Museum, she said they’ve been able to “make significant gains” at the lower end of the salary scale as well as other improvements, over time.

She sees the mass furloughs put in place last spring as a key impetus for the sort of seismic shifts we’re seeing now. “Furloughs and layoffs were shocking because it made it crystal clear that there’s no transparency, no real accountability from museum leadership to the staff, to say what the situation is, to plan with people, listen to concerns.” But she said the organizing trend had experienced an uptick before the epidemic, as “a lot of organizations were putting effort into land expansion and capital projects” rather than addressing the inequities bubbling just under the surface.

Animating all of their efforts, said Tobin, Elliott, and Rosenstein, is a love of museums, and of MASS MoCA in particular. No one is asking for “exorbitant” pay raises that would bankrupt the museum, Tobin said. The goal is a reinvigorated cultural sector that is inviting to all, from workers to local people who have not felt welcome as visitors.

“It [COVID-era closures of museums and theaters] could be a silver lining, and could put these things on the radar through their absence. I would hope to see MASS MoCA and all the culturals come back and be vibrant centers of art and performance.”

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