Labor Woes Hit Memorial to East Side Wage Slaves

By Rebecca Spence

Published May 18, 2007, issue of May 18, 2007.
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A few mornings a week, Tal Bar-Zemer dons a black floor-length skirt, white blouse, pinafore and lace-up leather boots in preparation for her job as a costumed interpreter at Manhattan’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum. On any given afternoon, she spends six to eight hours sitting in an overheated, cramped apartment, talking — in character — to museum visitors about the life of a young Jewish immigrant struggling to make it in New York in 1916.

But these days, the life of the girl she portrays, Victoria Confino, a 14-year-old Sephardic Jew from Turkey, is beginning to resemble her own in ways she never could have imagined. Bar-Zemer, 23, a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, is one of 40 educators at the museum — a preserved tenement building that offers a glimpse into the lives of its earlier inhabitants — who are fighting to establish a labor union there.

In a glaring irony, the very institution that commemorates the immigrants who formed the backbone of the American labor movement is now entrenched in a dispute over how it treats its employees.

“For all of the workers, it really hits home because they’re teaching labor history, and at the same time they’re struggling to get a union themselves,” said Eden Schulz, the recording secretary of Local 2110 United Auto Workers. “I think everyone recognizes the hypocrisy of that.” The union represents the museum workers in their organizing efforts.

The tussle pits the museum’s “per diem” employees, who work flexible hours and get paid by the day, against the museum’s management, which, workers say, has put up roadblocks to their ongoing attempts to unionize. Management representatives counter that they are open to a collective bargaining unit, but one established through an election administered by the National Labor Relations Board.

“The museum takes very seriously the right of its employees to form a union should they so choose in an appropriate unit,” said Bob Liff, a spokesman for the Tenement Museum. “We think it would be best done through an election, where you get an un-coerced and clear view of the desires of the employees,” he said.

Earlier this month, the museum rebuffed efforts to create a collective bargaining unit through a “card check,” wherein a neutral third party certifies that a majority of workers want to join the union. According to Schulz, “card check” is a far more efficient way to establish a union than going through the NLRB. The NLRB, created in 1935 to help protect workers’ rights, has become increasingly hostile toward labor in recent years, Schulz said, as President Bush has stacked the agency with his handpicked appointees.

Employees of the museum, which last year drew more than 125,000 visitors, complain of unstable hours, a lack of health care benefits, no set breaks and the fact that they have not seen a pay hike in four years.

Maia Macek, 34, said that while she has received no wage increase in her two years working at the museum, administrators have given themselves pay hikes over the same period. Macek also complained that employees are sometimes repudiated, or even fired, at will — a practice, she and other educators said, they would like to see change.

“There have been times when an employee has been reprimanded seemingly at random, and there’s no recourse for discussion,” she said.

Like Bar-Zemer, Macek plays the role of Victoria Confino. As “costumed interpreters,” both women earn $23 an hour. But that wage drops significantly — to $15 an hour —when they work as “educators,” giving tours of the museum. Macek, a nonfiction writer who supports herself through her work at the museum, said that once she qualified to give tours, she was given far fewer hours in her role as Confino. She also described the difficulties of working at the whim of her employer. “You can go from working eight hours a day for 12 days in a row, and then not be offered any hours,” she said.

Museum representatives say that when talks with “per diem” workers began last November, educators and costumed interpreters were offered the option of taking full-time jobs, as well as more stable part-time employment. Those offers, they said, were flatly rejected. “The per diems average on the order of 11 hours per week, and some had as little as three hours,” Liff said. “This is one of the reasons the museum reached out to them and continues to say ‘Become full-timers.’”

According to employees, they turned down the option of accepting the full-time positions because they viewed them as a shill for real negotiations. “There was no dialogue about it; there was just suddenly a job posting, and it seemed we were being asked to reapply for the jobs we already had,” said Macek, who added that the few educators who did take more permanent jobs came from the outside and were now being pressured to work extra hours.

A meeting between the parties is set to take place early next week.

Museum representatives said that one issue they would like to resolve is why the workers’ organizing effort does not include the museum’s existing full-time staff members, who are responsible for scheduling the tours.

But workers shot back that the question of whether to include the full-time employees, who work out of a different building and are subject to a different pay scale, was yet another ruse to stifle efforts to unionize. “They’re just creating a distraction and avoidance of the real issue,” Macek said, “which is that the per diem workers love the museum and want to see it working in alignment with its values.”

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