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United We Stand, Divided We Fall

Unions have played an essential role in protecting the employment rights of onstage actors, musicians, singers, and dancers since the beginning of the 20th century. Organized labor also has a long history of representing the interests of behind the scenes playwrights, composers, lyricists, designers, and stagehands. The initiative to unionize often stemmed from a desire by arts workers, especially freelancers with no leverage, to make sure they were treated fairly in terms of compensation and working conditions by the administrative leaders of commercial and non-commercial arts groups.

While those on the administrative staffs of arts organizations also work to earn a living, they have not been motivated solely by monetary rewards. Many of us shifted at some point in our careers from making art to helping others do so. We were thrilled to find gainful employment at organizations driven by missions that matched our passions and, therefore, accepted without question that we would be paid less than those doing comparable work at commercial enterprises. New research from Duke University documents this shockingly familiar practice of exploiting workers who are passionate about what they do. For a complex set of reasons, however, administrative personnel at some non-profit arts organizations are, like Howard Beale in Network, now saying “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Recently, hundreds of museum workers have been posting their salaries to a Google Spreadsheet, to use transparency as a strategy to foster greater internal and external pay equity. In a more formal collaborative effort to raise their pay and benefits, employees of the New Museum, the Tenement Museum and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City recently voted to join Local 2110 UAW, which already represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the New-York Historical Society. Other union organizing efforts have also taken place or are currently underway at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle and The Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

While it is difficult to generalize about what may have led employees to unionize at individual institutions, a number of factors affecting all non-profit arts and culture groups might be at play:

  • The premise that working for an organization that produces great art justifies less than great compensation is no longer acceptable;
  • The financial challenges faced by some non-profit groups have prevented them from giving salary increases that keep pace with living expenses;
  • Pressure from donors to minimize administrative overhead has reduced the percentage of organizational resources available for staff compensation;
  • A perception among non-unionized workers (which may or may not correlate to reality) that those in their organizations who are members of a union are treated more fairly;
  • The macro-economic environment that has created historically high-income inequality has produced a hugely insecure generation of highly educated workers who legitimately cannot make ends meet, especially in regions where real estate values have been skyrocketing; and
  • Management communication styles around compensation policies that are not very transparent and do not provide feedback loop mechanisms for those who are disgruntled.

Whether or not employees choose to join a union, which is, of course, their legal right, there are several things that the board and staff leaders of non-profit arts groups should be doing to reduce the incentive for those workers to do so:

  • To attract and retain qualified personnel, they should always be treated fairly, and with respect and dignity;
  • While administrative staff can be expected to work hard, job expectations should be set realistically for each position, so that an individual with the necessary skills and experience can complete the work within a reasonable number of hours each week (and still have a life outside work);
  • The salary range for each position should be set within the financial parameters of an organization’s resources, but with the goal of it being benchmarked against the range that is offered, where possible, by for-profit companies, as well as comparable non-profit organizations;
  • The actual compensation paid to each individual should be based on his or her individual skills, experience and job performance (evaluated annually relative to clearly defined goals), but fair and equitable, relative to the compensation structure provided to others within the organization;
  • Organizations should provide confidential forums in which individual employees can feel comfortable expressing frustrations and concerns about their compensation, or any other aspect of their employment, without fear of retribution; and
  • The board should have a standing Human Capital Strategy Committee (formerly the HR Committee), which is charged with the review and approval of employment policies and procedures and oversight of management’s administration of those policies.

While it is not possible to satisfy the compensation expectations of everyone, especially during these challenging times, non-profit arts groups would be wise to remember that the attainment of their public service missions requires having human capital strategies that are as robust as their financial capital and programmatic strategies.



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