As has happened in media, white collar employees in arts institutions are rediscovering the power of organized labor, as efforts to unionize the Tenement Museum and the New Museum show. The latest cultural institution in the city to see employees organize is the Brooklyn Academy of Music; its administrative workers are seeking to join up with the UAW, in a move they say will ensure stable careers with the arts academy.
“We’re all doing this because we love BAM so much,” organizer and videographer Kaitlyn Chandler told Bedford + Bowery about the union effort. Chandler and fellow organizer Jesse Trussell both told Bedford + Bowery that they believed in BAM’s mission to deliver adventurous art and artists to their audience and deeply cared about the programming that the institution helps bring to Brooklyn. The effort to unionize the administrative staff is more about making sure that the people who work there can have long-lasting careers at BAM, they both said.
“Unless you’re in a high-up position at BAM, you’re not able to [stay with the institution for a long time], it’s just not sustainable, the lifestyle, the amount of work we do compared to the amount of pay we get,” Chandler said.
According to Chandler, the BAM union would encompass somewhere between 150 and 200 people in a range of jobs, from those who do administrative work like web design and marketing, to ticket takers and sellers, to grant writers and artist-services employees. While BAM works with a unionized workforce in areas like maintenance and stagehands in six other unions, the batch of employees seeking to join the UAW are following the footsteps of administrative staff in cultural institutions like the New Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
As an example of why the administrative staff is unionizing, Chandler brought up employees in BAM’s production department, who help make sure the shows themselves go on by doing things like liaising with visiting lighting and stage designers, and obtaining materials and equipment. They “routinely work the most amount of hours” at the institution, upwards of 80 hours per week, according to Chandler. Under BAM’s current work rules for these employees, they’re rewarded with extra vacation days instead of overtime, but Chandler said the extra PTO is essentially useless since “it becomes difficult to go on a vacation because the department is understaffed,” and the unused vacation time doesn’t get paid out if and when an employee leaves.
Chandler and Trussell also said employees in ticket services, long the least-paid at the institution, were promised a raise when the state’s minimum wage went up, only to see that raise turn out to be the new minimum wage of $15 per hour. Positions that used to come with full benefits have reportedly gone to new hires who get less money and fewer benefits. Ultimately, the idea of the union is to raise the floor for the entire BAM workforce, Chandler and Trussell said.
“This is a way for us to have an organized seat at the table for negotiations,” Trussell said. “In recent years at BAM, we’ve noticed some issues around transparency about how some decisions are made on things like benefits and cutbacks. All of those things will happen at that managerial level, and the staff doesn’t have an organized way to have input. And [the union] is a way for us to exercise our democratic rights and have a democratic body that can be there, making sure that the the best decisions are being made for the staff,” he said.
Despite the putative progressive spirit of the institution (BAM did run an entire series on labor-friendly films), Chandler said that so far management had not agreed to voluntary recognition (a form of union recognition that skips an election) or a neutrality agreement (an agreement for the employer to stay neutral on the union question), something she seemed disappointed by since, as she told Bedford + Bowery, “at the end of the day, we still have to work with each other.”
“We respect the employees who are interested in forming a union and are committed to making sure every voice is heard,” BAM Director of Communications Sandy Sawotka (a union member herself), told Bedford + Bowery. “BAM enjoys positive relationships with all six labor unions that already represent our employees and has always negotiated with them in good faith. BAM will respect our employees’ decision and we are committed to moving forward together and advancing the work of the place we all love.”
But organizers say that BAM management has responded to the campaign with a series of anti-union messages, including an email from president Kay Clark that purported to tell “the truth” about unions and included suggestions that raises and employee pensions could be threatened by a successful union vote. According to Sawotka, the email from Clark wasn’t a threat, but was merely a reminder that pension benefits and raises were subject to the collective bargaining process. Still, one local media union leader suggested the tactic was essentially indistinguishable from a big box store trying to quell a union drive.
The organizers say that they haven’t been dissuaded from the campaign to win a union, and are united in their belief that an organized workforce is a fairer workforce that reflects the values of progressivism and free expression.
“This is a direction that we can go down that’s going to strengthen BAM in the long run,” Trussell said. “I’m doing this, honestly, because I love BAM, and quite honestly would love to spend the rest of my career working here.”