Fight at the Museum

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:10

    The Lower East Side Tenement Museum entrance is an opening to a time capsule. History is everywhere: There are dirt-encrusted tiles on the floor; soot-covered paintings on the wall; grime-caked sheet-metal ceilings. Unlike the rest of the neighborhood—which is pocked with salons and fancy clothing boutiques, glass high-rises and gourmet restaurants—the building appears the same today as it was when millions of immigrants began jamming the neighborhood 150 years ago.

    Inside the individual apartments, you see where generations lived, worked and died (often in the same two- or three-room flat). In one room, 20 layers of wallpaper and scattered artifacts found during the building’s early-1990s renovation and excavation are a reminder of the transient bustle of the time.

    Guides lead visitors through the apartments and share details of the actual families who lived there. The guides’ ages and backgrounds vary, including artists, musicians, professional tour guides and trained actors. Although these men and women are part-time workers, their craft requires training and practice. They work anywhere from a few times a month to sometimes as much as 20 hours per week.

    “The educators are probably the most important component to this place’s success,” explains David Eng, vice-president for public affairs at the museum. “They’re very much the face of the museum.”

    It was only a matter of time: These vital workers—many of whom have worked there for years—have been absorbing and reciting the history that helped the former residents to band together and prosper. Now, they want a larger share of the museum’s success. They want some of the benefits afforded full-time employees: vacation time, sick leave and health care. If nothing else, they want an opportunity to at least bargain collectively. They want guaranteed hours, and they figure a raise would be nice, too. Especially since, regardless of how long they had worked at the museum, not one of the educators has received a salary adjustment.

    They essentially want to put their money where their mouths are. Tired of just talking about unions and the way they changed the face of this country, a group of about 30 educators—hourly workers who lead tours and discussions at the museum—decided to form one. Easy, they figured: No institution is friendlier to labor than the Tenement Museum. After all, a pro-union vibe permeates the place, from its bookstore stocked with tomes about the labor movement to the actual tenement at 97 Orchard Street, where the seeds of organized labor grew. The founders and managers of the museum clearly revere the history that surrounds them.

    Despite that reverence, a no-holds-barred labor clash is underway beneath their own roof. Educators who spend their days extolling unions were thwarted from the very beginning and told their own union would not be recognized. They organized anyway, protested and passed out flyers at every opportunity, just as the men and women in their history lessons did. Their rallying even convinced a trustee, State Sen. Tom Duane, to resign his position with the museum. But the museum’s stance did not change. For two years it has opposed immediate recognition of the union, and thrown up roadblock after roadblock. It’s a living history if there ever was one.

    “The thing that just gets my goat is that we’re promoting labor history and they’re not recognizing the union,” says H.R. Britton, 37, an educator who has worked at the museum for two years. “On a good day that’s ironic, but on a bad day, that’s deeply disturbing.”


    During the mid-19th century, Manhattan’s Lower East Side bustled with pushcarts and overflowed with immigrants. Men, women and children from across Europe flocked to the new world, looking for work and a better future. They brought new languages—including Yiddish, Spanish and German—with them and a willingness to work long, brutal hours in squalid conditions if it meant greater opportunities for their children and grandchildren.

    People took notice that their own endless labor was enriching wealthy businessmen but doing little to advance their own interests. In response, at the dawn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side birthed a revolutionary brand of progressivism. Workers rallied for rights, demanded shorter work weeks and better working conditions. The efforts marked the beginning of the labor movement and the rise of the union.

    Such is the mythology of the neighborhood as told at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Visitors learn that unions ended a harsh way of life and protected workers from greedy managers and owners. Unions helped usher in the United States we know today, where workers have rights. Unions saved a generation of immigrants, ensuring that the goals they dreamed of could become real.

    Now these same educators also want some protections. In the run-up to the organization of the union, they had seen dedicated and admired colleagues fired without the typical cause such situations usually have. Karina Casiano was fired days after trudging to work in a blizzard, and Nadine Stewart was let go after five years at the museum. Years later, the firings don’t sit well with the people who were there at the time. It bothers them that their friends were let go without notice, without another job to fall back on. It rankles them that there is still no set procedure for doling out disciplinary action.

    With an array of concerns and demands, the educators presented their first letter to the museum two years ago, saying they wanted to form a union.

    According to Eng, the museum’s position on the union has not changed since that day. “We think any union should be open to everybody and not just a group of people,” he says, reiterating that the union should also include full-time employees. “It should all be put up for a vote. It should go through the formal process.”

    It is a position that has hurt the perception of the museum, and cost them an ally in Albany. When he resigned his trustee position in May of this year, Tom Duane wrote: “I am most disturbed by the museum’s continued obstruction of the union organizing drive being mounted by its part-time tour guides. Support for the labor movement has always been, and continues to be, part of New York City’s tradition. Sadly, and frankly inexplicably, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum does not appear to share this tradition.”


    Educators who have worked at the museum longest say they still love the idea of the place. They enjoy teaching about the growth of the liberal left and the rise of an immigrant working class. But they say the museum has changed in recent years: It’s become more corporate.

    Where the attitude manifests itself the most, educators say, is in disciplinary procedures. Karina Casiano worked at the museum for just over a year, beginning in December of 2001. She is a professional actor and worked as a costumed interpreter at the museum. She played the role of Victoria Confino, a Sephardic Jewish girl whose family lived at 97 Orchard St. in 1916, after fleeing war in Turkey.

    The role required responding to questions from tourists, and a vast knowledge of Confino’s life. Casiano also adapted an accent and sprinkled in words from both Spanish and Ladino (a form of Medieval Spanish, which was Confino’s native language).

    Casiano explains that she loved the job. She loved that she got to learn, hone her acting skills and that it afforded her the flexibility she needed as a professional actor. In turn, the museum acknowledged her good work. When HGTV decided to tape a program at the museum, the museum asked Casiano to play the role of Confino during the segment.

    The taping was set for Presidents’ Day on Monday, Feb. 17, 2003, a day on which the museum was closed and only a skeletal staff was around for the taping. When Casiano woke up that morning, New York, like the entire Eastern Seaboard, was blanketed in snow—almost 20 inches in Central Park.

    Subway lines were disrupted, and bus schedules were a mess. At the time, Casiano lived in Borough Park, Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island. She called in to check on the status of the taping, and was told it was still on. According to Casiano, it took her two-and-a-half hours to get to the museum that day.

    “I got there late, soaking wet and freezing,” she explains years later, still able to recall the horrible conditions. She was 45 minutes late, to be exact. The crew had waited, though, and they taped her segment first before moving on to other parts of the Confino apartment and the rest of the museum.

    According to Casiano, she received a call from her supervisor the next day asking why she had been late to the taping. Casiano says she’d been in touch with the people at the museum all day and that she resented the questioning, especially given the lengths she’d gone to make it to the museum at all.

    So she drafted a letter to her boss’ supervisor. She explained the situation: “It is fairly objectable [sic] to reprimand a worker for arriving 45 minutes late in such an extraordinary situation.” She emphasized that she would only be paid $34.50 for the ordeal and reiterated that she appreciated the job, the museum and its message. Within a week of sending the letter, Casiano was fired.

    She assumes she was let go because she went above her supervisor’s head, but says there was never any real explanation—just that her services were no longer needed. To Casiano and the current educators, her situation is an example of why the part-time employees need a union.

    “Without a union you don’t have a democratic workplace,” says Eden Schulz, recording secretary for Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, which is helping the museum workers organize. “We’ve had people get fired for no apparent reason. How do you refute something like that?”


    The old visitor center had a water fountain; the new one has water for sale. It’s the type of change that makes Dianne Kraft cringe. A grandmother of twins, Kraft started giving tours at the museum in 2001.

    “I loved the museum when I first started working there,” Kraft says from her Washington Heights home. “I felt I was doing something worthwhile, and I didn’t mind the low salary because I believed in the museum’s mission of tolerance and understanding.”

    Kraft is garrulous, and you can hear the smile in her voice when she talks about her work. It may be practiced from her years of giving tours (she also leads groups at Lincoln Center), but it comes across naturally.

    Her voice changes, though, when she talks about the moment that made her rethink the Tenement Museum. It was the spring of 2006, and Kraft’s friend Nadine Stewart had just been fired from her job as an educator, based on a complaint from a tourist.

    Out of the 20,000 visitors and students Nadine Stewart guided through the Lower East Side Tenement Museum during her five years as an educator there, 15 complained about the tours she gave. Fifteen took it upon themselves to contact management about problems with the job she did. An average of three people per year (less than a tenth of 1 percent of all the people she led) registered a gripe.

    Still, it was too much for the museum. They fired Stewart after the last complaint. In a letter dated September 18, 2006, Ruth J. Abram, the museum’s president at the time, wrote: “Fifteen complaints—is fifteen too many.” Without an opportunity to rebut the charges, no established museum standard for handling public input, and with no recourse, Stewart was out of a job.

    But the complaints that ended Stewart’s time at the museum don’t read like the rap sheet you might expect. There is no talking back or insubordination, no tardiness, nothing about dissatisfaction with the content or quality of her tours.

    Rather, in the spring of 2006, one woman complained that Stewart refused to open the museum early for her group. The woman’s group was not allowed in even after she reiterated that her cruise ship was only docked in New York Harbor for a few more hours.

    Another woman complained after Stewart asked her to regain control of her child, who’d spent the majority of the tour punching the guide’s legs.

    Of the feedback Stewart received while working at the museum, the overwhelming majority of it was positive. She was praised in evaluations as: “A real leader among our staff,” and “a natural storyteller.” Even in correspondence sent to Stewart after her termination, the people who fired her lauded her. One email read: “You’ve always held yourself and others to the highest standards.”

    “Nadine gave her heart and soul to the museum,” Kraft says, recalling the situation. “She knew everything—all the tours. What happened to her really got a lot of people upset. It gave a lot of us pause. If they can get rid of her, they can just get rid of any of us.”

    More than two years after her firing, Stewart, 62, still feels she got a raw deal. What rankles her most, though, is that the museum still has no uniform procedure for handling complaints. It’s a concern shared by all the current educators who agreed to be interviewed.

    In fact, H.R. Britton names “transparent disciplinary procedures” as the primary reason why a union is needed. He argues that people will always complain about tours—that they’re too long or too political. The question is: What does the museum do with complaints once they’ve been received? “It’s just unsettling that they’re out there,” says Britton. “At some point, someone can just say, ‘Let’s have a look at your file.’ It’s scary.”

    David Eng makes the same point about complaints being a natural outcome from dealing with the public. “You can’t please everybody all the time,” he says. He also insists that educators have nothing to worry about. “If one complaint comes in, nothing happens to anybody. There’s a process in place now. But if there are many complaints that come in over a period of time about one particular person, we have to determine if they’re valid.”


    Around the same time Stewart was let go, Lethia Nall started taking a closer look at her paycheck. Nall is an actor who works part time at the museum as a costumed interpreter and educator. Like Karina Casiano before her, she plays the role of Victoria Confino.

    As Confino, Nall welcomes visitors into her family’s apartment in the tenement museum, as though the tourists are newly arrived immigrants. It is an acting role, and, accordingly, the Victorias are almost always trained actors.

    The training and rehearsal required for the position made it one of the higher paid part-time positions at the museum at $23 per hour to start; a salary Nall quickly admits is fair. In 2006, though, she realized her starting salary was also her current salary.

    “I hadn’t gotten a raise in four years,” she says during an interview at a Lower East Side coffee shop near her home. “I’d never been at a job where that had happened before. It was ridiculous.”

    And she wasn’t the only one—far from it. Dianne Kraft had been earning $15 per hour for five years. During her entire time at the museum, Nadine Stewart never received a raise. “There was never even the mention of one,” she says.

    David Zydallis, 53, has worked as an educator at the museum since 2003, and earned $15 per hour for his first three years. Pay increases eventually came, not just for Zydallis, but for all the educators, in 2006. The museum gave the part-time employees a bump in salary, and offered further opportunity to add to their wages through incentives like learning more tours.

    Many of the educators interviewed were suspicious of the timing of the pay increases, because they came almost immediately on the heels of their initial efforts to form a union.

    “It’s all seemingly the result of our starting to organize,” says Britton. “We do that, and the pay moves up out of the blue. Pay had not gone up for several years. I don’t see how it wasn’t a result of our agitating.”

    Eng, speaking on behalf of the museum, categorically denies that the union drive had anything to do with those or any other pay adjustments. “It depends on the financial situation of the museum. That’s it. We did it at that time [in 2006] for all employees because we were able to.”

    Still, Nall thinks the museum should do more. “Based on even the most conservative annual cost of living increase,” she says, throwing out 2 percent as conservative, “they would owe me something like $8,000.”


    Regardless of the impetus for the pay increases, across the board, educators reiterate they’re happy with some of the changes that have come since they started their union push. Still, they say a union is vital, and that they will not give up the fight.

    “We’ve gotten our first raise we’ve ever gotten, and other things—like a green room,” says Nall. “They wouldn’t have done all this if they didn’t know they’d done something wrong.”

    Eden Schulz put the matter in even more pointed terms: “They’ve responded to the organizing drive by making improvements. They’re willing to give money to educators when they’re pressured. But at the same time they can take it away any time.”

    That last statement is the one that scares the educators. Even as the museum grows, expands its reach and adds more tours, the educators feel the tenuousness of their situation. They say they no longer get the hours they ask for, and that scheduling has become less accommodating.

    Some of that is evidenced in the museum’s increasing reliance on volunteer educators and full-time staff as tour guides. Over a four-week period from Sep. 10 to Oct. 5, 2007, for instance, educators gave more than 77 percent of the 435 tours the museum offered. One year later (from Sep. 8 to Oct. 3, 2008), the educators gave 71 percent of the 625 tours offered.

    Eng contends that the decline is part of the ebb and flow of a non-profit. He claims there has always been a balance between paid and unpaid educators—now is no different.

    Of course the educators disagree. The men and women interviewed for this story say they are concerned this is just the beginning of a downward spiral in the hours. Perhaps more significantly, they are adamant that their declining percentage of the work is not a reflection of the hours they want to spend at the museum.

    “I, along with everyone else, am available for more hours,” said Max Weissberg, an educator who works 18 hours each week, but says he’s that he is available for 25.

    Nadine Kraft, even after seven years of working at the museum, says she was recently told there were no available hours for her. It wasn’t that she was being let go they told her, but that she should try back again at a later date.

    Lethia Nall claims even the role of Victoria Confino—which has traditionally gone to trained actors—is being taken on by people who would never have played the part in the past. Full-time staff members are now required to play the Confino role four hours each week.

    “It’s all part of reorganization,” Nall says, waving her arms theatrically. “For every new red metal bench that goes up outside the museum, it’s one more blow to me as an educator. I see all this money being invested, and I think it’s great, but I’m also confused and saddened. Why aren’t they putting it back into the workers the same way they put it into the bookshop?”

    The simple answer, according to Eng, is that funds for improvements (part of a long-term plan) and funds for pay come from different pots. “Pay increases have happened in the past and are based both on merit as well as on economic feasibility,” Eng wrote in an email. “[The educators] have expressed that they want a guaranteed pay increase and that is physically impossible for any non-profit. And that holds true for both full-time and part-time staff.


    At this point, the educators have already held a card check, a procedural move where workers indicate their desire to form a union. According to Schulz, a supermajority of the part-time workers has been pro-union since the beginning.

    If it chose to do so, the Tenement Museum could recognize the card check as the final step in establishing a union. As Eng reiterated, the museum prefers that a formal election including all employees be conducted under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It’s a potentially expensive and lengthy process, and the fact that the museum raised it has only raised passions on the pro-union side.

    “In all honesty, if they can’t get voluntary recognition from the museum, the fastest way for this to work out for the educators might be for them to come to [NLRB],” says David Leach, deputy regional attorney for the NLRB in Manhattan. “But that doesn’t mean the process is necessarily fast. Employers can certainly delay the process and drag it into the courts.”

    Although 79 percent of all representation cases brought before the NLRB in 2007 were resolved within 100 days of their filing, the educators firmly believe theirs will be the exception. They say the museum’s intractability is evidence that the process will not be easy and that roadblocks will crop up. So they continue to press for immediate resolution.

    “It’s not about the money anymore,” says H.R. Britton. “It’s about the integrity of bringing their message into practice. This whole thing boils my blood. I’ve spent a lot of time organizing, and if I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, I’ve got to keep fighting. I’ve spent uncountable hours trying to organize this union. At this point for them to say, ‘Yes, we recognize you. Let’s sit down,’ would be the most satisfying thing they could do.”