New York, NY – The Brooklyn Academy of Music likes to portray itself as a bastion of social justice and democratic ideals, but it isn’t putting out the welcome mat for struggling workers striving to unionize.
On the contrary, workers say the venerable arts & cultural institution in Downtown Brooklyn has spent the last two months assailing the merits of unionization and collective bargaining under a “cloak of neutrality.”
“What has been frustrating about this particular response is that it hasn’t be blatant ‘captive audience sessions’ where it’s very clear what’s happening,” BAM staffer Emily Searles told LaborPress this week. “Management will send emails saying, ‘we just want you to know the facts.’ But they only highlight the negative possibilities of unionizing or misrepresenting what unions actually do for you — it’s still very one sided.”
Searles and other BAM staffers fed up with what they view as a growing lack of transparency on the part of management, successfully filed union authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board designating UAW Local 2110 as their representative back in April.
Since then, however, the organization that routinely features film series touting the importance of the American Labor Movement, has not only failed to voluntary recognize the union or sign a neutrality agreement — it has spent its time sending out emails to employees subtly warning them about the pitfalls of organizing collectively for better working conditions.
In one such email sent out on April 26, BAM President Katy Clark pointed out that employees presently have the ability to “individually negotiate their salary.”
“If the employees choose to be represented by a union, the union becomes the exclusive representative of the employees for the purpose of collectively bargaining wages and BAM cannot deal directly with members of the bargaining unit,” Clark wrote. “This means the ability of employees to negotiate a wage increase above “established minimums,” directly with BAM, is not automatic. Maintaining this ability is something that would have to be jointly agreed to in the collective bargaining process.”
In an April 18, missive, Associate VP of Human Resources Seth Azizollahoff offered this tidbit, “A union shop union security clause requires every employee represented by the union to either join the union and pay full union dues or pay the high percentage of union dues required for union representation (explained below), to the union. If you don’t, the clause will say that the union can require the company to terminate your employment.”
UAW Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein called BAM’s behavior “shocking” and “a gross waste of resources”, especially for an “almost quasi-public institution” that gets a lot of city money.
“It’s shocking, they already have unions — custodial staff, theater wardrobe, stage hands…,” Rosenstein told LaborPress. “Yet, when they ran an antiunion campaign they attacked bargaining rights fundamentally — the right to have a strong union. That was pretty appalling.”
When asked if BAM is at all concerned about employing tactics traditionally associated with anti-union efforts and appearing anti-labor, Director of Communications Sandy Sawotka responded with a canned response restating the following:
“We respect the employees who are interested in forming a union and are committed to making sure every voice is heard. BAM enjoys positive relationships with all six labor unions that already represent our employees and has always negotiated with them in good faith. BAM will respect our employees’ decision and we are committed to moving forward together and advancing the work of the place we all love.”
“The push for unionizing, in the first place, was because we’ve noticed a lack of transparency around things like employee departures, staffing changes and benefits, baseline compensation, annual increases or promotions, and so, while we were hoping for a neutrality agreement to be reached, I wasn’t expecting voluntary recognition either,” Searles said.
Despite those who view unionization efforts at BAM as a “stick-it-to-the-man-type thing,” the 27 -year-old musician from Upstate, New York says co-workers have aligned with UAW Local 2110 because they do, indeed, love BAM and want to make it “stronger, more democratic [and] more sustainable.”
“I think everyone is doing this because we love working at BAM so much,” Searles said. “We realized that not everyone’s experience is the same. I’m in it for the collective betterment, not so much for myself. I think there’s also something to be said about solidarity, not just for the people benefitting now, but the people that will come after. If we’re successful, if we win this election, and we establish a union at BAM, then that means that future employees will have things that we didn’t.”
That election has been scheduled for Thursday, June 13.
In addition to a lack of transparency, workers pushing for unionization say lower level positions at BAM have become unsustainable due to low pay and big demands, and that many are leaving after just two years on the job or less.
The current drive to unionize workers at BAM follows a trend set by workers at other cultural institutions around the city including MoMA, The Tenement Museum and the New Museum.
“It’s a movement now — especially across the city with other cultural institutions — just being part of something bigger,” Searles said. “I think we’ve seen a lot of disgusting anti-union campaigns, going on right now. “It’s refreshing to see people being more tuned in.”