Volume 76, Number 50 | May 9 -15, 2007

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Tal Bar-Zemer, a costumed tour guide at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, outside the museum on Orchard St.

Tenement guides learn from history form union

By Julie Shapiro and Alyssa Giachino

After years of educating tourists on the importance of unions, workers at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum are taking their own advice.

Last Wednesday, a group of per diem workers met with museum management to demand recognition of their union, U.A.W. Local 2110. They requested a card count, in which a neutral third party would verify that a majority of workers have signed cards declaring their desire to have union representation.

The workers’ complaints include conditions endemic to the original tenements: extreme temperatures and cramped rooms. The workers want pay increases, benefits, guaranteed hours and improved breaks.

“We teach civic lessons about workers who unionized in the Lower East Side,” said Tal Bar-Zemer, a costumed tour guide at the museum, located at 97 Orchard St. “We felt the union would be a really wonderful thing, especially given the historical lessons that [the museum] teaches.”

Bar-Zemer, 23, represents “Victoria,” a member of a Sephardic Jewish family who lived in the building around 1916. She piles on a shirtwaist, a petticoat and skirt and sometimes a pinafore and spends the day orienting visitors on the advantages and pitfalls of life in the tenements around the turn of the century.

The air conditioner in the apartment has been broken since last summer, and the room is poorly heated in the winter, Bar-Zemer said. Between tour groups she often gets a break, though she has to be “on call” and in costume at all times.

H.R. Britton, a tour guide who leads up to six tours a day at the museum — though not in costume — said the lack of air conditioning is especially hard on the costumed interpreters who are in an enclosed space for up to eight hours.

“The girl that’s in there in a wig and three petticoats is sweltering to the point of nausea,” he said. “We’re at the front lines of the museum, but we’re the lowest on the totem pole.”

Britton said leading tours for groups ranging from third-graders to retirees requires a lot of skill in both storytelling and crowd management.

“It’s a complex story that we tell,” he said. “We have to weave these narratives together.”

Last Thursday, the Tenement Museum released a statement in response to the meeting with the union.

“We have indicated in the past that we would recognize any union that establishes itself as the choice of a majority of our employees in an appropriate unit,” the statement reads. “We believe the [National Labor Relations Board] is the agency that can best determine that issue through a secret ballot election by our employees.” 

Daniel Arnheim, the museum’s director of public relations and marketing, declined to explain the statement or answer questions, saying only, “We have issued a statement. That’s as far as we’re willing to go.”

The museum has 40 per diem workers — who work on a flexible schedule and are paid for the days they work. Nearly all of them have joined the union, said Eden Schulz, recording secretary of Local 2110.

The museum’s statement means that the administration will not cooperate with a card count to establish the union, Schulz said. The museum’s choice to involve the National Labor Relations Board will make the process lengthy and expensive, she said.

“If the boss was really interested in recognizing the union and being fair about it, there’s no reason not to agree to a card check,” Schulz said. “It’s disappointing…. This is really the direction that anti-union employers go.”

“Especially at the Tenement Museum, which has a real understanding of labor history, we’re hoping they would understand where we’re coming from and would agree to take a more progressive route,” Schulz said.

The National Labor Relations Board process can take years, which unions argue gives employers the advantage by allowing them to intimidate workers and threaten them into voting against unionization. Bipartisan legislation in Congress seeks to simplify the process by certifying the union once a majority of workers have signed card authorizations, rather than using a ballot election.

“The only reason bosses like to go to the N.L.R.B. is because it buys them time,” Schulz said. “People already expressed their desire for the union by signing cards. People want an impact on their jobs right now.”

Britton is surprised that management is resistant to the staff forming a union.

“I find it really ironic,” he said. “You lionized the unions, but you don’t want one under your roof. How does that square with the peoples’ lives you eulogize?

“It hurts me to see a lack of integrity like that,” Britton said, “Especially at a museum whose mission I love.”

Schulz is not certain of the union’s next action, but she is confident that the union can find ways to pressure the museum, if necessary.

“A lot of people who make donations to the museum would be very sympathetic to what we’re doing,” she said. U.A.W. Local 2110 represents technical, office and professional workers, including those at Columbia University, New York University, the Museum of Modern Art and the New-York Historical Society.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who is an honorary trustee of the Tenement Museum, said through a spokesman that he supports the workers’ right to organize. 

“It’s between the workers and the museum to figure it out, and we hope that they do,” he said.

Bar-Zemer described the meeting between workers and management as “apprehensive,” at times tense and at times friendly. The management seemed surprised but positive, and Bar-Zemer hopes for a favorable outcome.

“We are the face of the museum,” she said. “To have them not recognize our union would be really antithetical to everything that the museum stands for.”

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