Worked up over museum dispute, Duane quits board

By Caroline N. Jackson

Costumed interpreters, tour guides and educators of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum waged a pickle protest last Thursday to inform the public of their charge that the museum is trying to block them from organizing a union.

Part-time museum workers had planned to commemorate May Day, but after they say they were forced to file an unfair labor practice charge against the museum, the event became a “Pickle Picket.” Sour pickles with picket flags poked into them reading “May Day 2008” and pamphlets detailing the unionization effort were passed out to museum visitors and passersby.

“We wanted to get word out to museum visitors about the tactics being used against us by the museum,” said Eden Schulz, recording secretary for Local 2110 U.A.W., which is helping the museum workers organize.

The workers’ grievance stems from their being threatened with disciplinary action for talking to museumgoers about the union push on their lunch breaks. Schulz says this is a time for people to use for any personal business, and since workers are allowed to talk about any other subject, they should be able to talk about the union.

“We can’t allow them to take a position like that without doing anything,” she declared.

David Eng, vice president of public affairs at the Tenement Museum, said the museum has no problem with workers demonstrating or picketing, but he added that employees are “not allowed to promote personal agendas” while on museum property.

“We are providing a visit for those that come that is unique,” said Eng. “To intrude upon that time and talk about that during that time is unfair.”

State Senator Tom Duane joined the protesters in passing out pamphlets last Thursday.

“He’s a big supporter of labor unions, so it wasn’t surprising, but it’s great to have him on our side,” said Schulz.

Duane recently denied funds to the Tenement Museum and resigned from his position as an honoree trustee of its board of directors. As a supporter of workers’ rights he found the museum’s actions inexplicable, considering its dedication to “promoting tolerance and historical perspective” of the labor movement that has long been a New York City tradition.

“I am most disturbed by the museum’s continued obstruction of the union organizing drive being mounted by its part-time tour guides,” said Duane in a letter to the museum.

The New York State Employee Relations Board recently offered to mediate the unionization process but the museum declined to participate. The museum wants the secret ballot election also to include full-time workers who already have many of the benefits the union is demanding.

“We have never been against the union; we never said no,” Eng said. “We just think it needs to be open to the whole staff.”

The Tenement Museum has also insisted on following the process through the National Labor Relations Board — instead of doing a so-called card count — to determine if the majority of employees are in favor of a union.

“As you must know, however, the N.L.R.B. process can take years, time that in other cases has been used by management to foment opposition to or fear of unionization,” noted Duane in his letter.

Despite setbacks, the part-time nonunion workers remain hopeful that their continuing public campaign will put pressure on the museum to allow them to get the job security, adequate break time, regular raises and benefits they are requesting.

“The type of people that support the museum also have a lot of sympathy for workers’ rights,” said Schulz, adding of the museum, “They aren’t going to be able to withstand this forever.”