Labor Pains: The 2018 NEMA Conference and the Museum World's Ongoing Wages and Workers Challenges
A labor dispute happening during the recent New England Museum Association (NEMA) Conference illustrates the Museum World's ongoing challenges with workers and wages.
Despite the fact that representatives of Unite Here Local 217 requested that all NEMA Conference attendees honor a boycott and daily picket lines against the Stamford Hilton by not entering the hotel, over 90% of the approximately 900 conference registrants entered the hotel to attend sessions and events.
A small number of NEMA Conference attendees chose to honor the boycott and picket lines by not entering the Hilton and by holding their sessions offsite at either the Local 217 Union Hall, The Bruce Museum, or Franklin Street Works, a local not-for-profit art space. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of those offsite sessions had a social justice focus, and almost all of those offsite presenters honoring the Hilton boycott were women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ communities.)
Certainly, the decisions that everyone made regarding how to participate (or whether to participate at all) in the NEMA Conference were their own, but museum people being museum people, there was some furious parsing of union and labor terminology and some pretzel logic going on to justify some of those decisions -- which you can rehash for yourself by checking out the #NEMA2018 hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
[And now for context, a short union terminology sidebar, speaking from my perspective as someone who grew up in Detroit in a union household and in an extended family of union members, including my immigrant grandfather who was fighting with his coworkers against Henry Ford's goons to help start the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.
To boycott an establishment (like the Stamford Hilton) means to withdraw from commercial or social relations with an organization as a punishment or protest. There doesn't need to be a "strike" a "labor action" or even an active "dispute" or "demonstration." Union 217 asked all NEMA Conference attendees to boycott the Hilton by canceling their room reservations, and/or by not entering the hotel as a show of support and solidarity.
Picketing is a form of protest in which people congregate outside a place of work or location where an event is taking place. Often, this is done in an attempt to dissuade others from going in, but it can also be done to draw public attention to a cause. Again this can be independent of any formal "strike" or specific "labor action." In this case, Union 217 held daily picket lines outside the Stamford Hilton to urge people not to enter or patronize the hotel.
If you wait 10 minutes after a picket line stops to enter a place of business, or if you look for a side or rear entrance because a picket line is only at the front door, you "technically" did not cross the picket line, but you are also "technically" acting like a weasel. A picket line serves the same purpose as a boycott in the sense that it is an ongoing request for support and solidarity, whether a picket line completely encircles a building and every entrance 24 hours a day or not. ]
What happened during the 2018 NEMA Conference may be an isolated incident, but it is also reflective of ongoing challenges related to wages and workers in the museum and not-for-profit worlds and how museum workers and museum organizations need to "walk the walk" not just "talk the talk."
Salary transparency is an example of one small way to increase awareness and equity for museum workers. While many national museum organizations like the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) and the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) along with numerous regional, state, and local museum organizations have required that salary ranges be part of every job posting, some other museum organizations (including NEMA) have chosen not to honor this simple requirement asked for by members, including some of their own board members. (You can find out more about the campaign for museum salary transparency at the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network's website.)
If we want fair pay and better working conditions for ALL workers, including museum workers, and if we want to make museums welcoming places for ALL people, not just a small subset of our communities, how will we ACT when given the chance to show support and solidarity for those ideals?
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