Someone brought up the Plimoth Plantation workers concerns for safety, and how those outweighed the low wages in their drive to unionize. Uneven streets, low staffing levels and safety requirements placed on them– watching open fires– meant that they were unable to leave the houses even for “nature breaks.” These are all legitimate concerns and the expectation that workers will tolerate unforgiving, dangerous, or humiliating conditions because “it’s all for a good cause” is ridiculous (and, apparently, a darned good way to inspire a union).
The union effort I was part of was not driven solely by low wages. There were other factors, including an executive director with a large but fragile ego, who was inclined to operate rather whimsically. When the drive failed, the need for union was by no means diminished, especially given the retaliations that followed, including the case of a woman who went on maternity leave, only to find on her return that her job had not been saved for her, despite the museum’s need to comply with the FMLA and assurances made before she went on maternity leave.
Do not think that cannot happen today, because changes to the terms of employment happen all the time in museums, even when the leave alternate work schedules have been negotiated and put in writing. Museums and their directors are, in general, no more benevolent than any other employer.
But safety seems basic, right? Well….would you like to be the sole person working in a 16,000SF historic house? Granted, no open fires, but you are still expected to answer the door and you will find that people will force their way into the house, even when you tell them the museum is closed. Lucky for you, none of them were threatening.
Except of course the one who was. When the concerns were brought to the executive director, there was a surprising lack of support– It’s one incident. He’s crazy, so what? You’re overreacting. That’s the best neighborhood in [small town redacted]. House staff asked for mirrors at the door and minimum staffing levels of two. Someone suggested maybe Boy Scouts would be good to have come in on the weekend afternoons when the staff person is alone– Boy Scouts need service hours for college applications, after all. In less than a year, the house manager resigned. The exterior lights around the house were not fixed or replaced, and it was pitch dark and empty on the walk to the parking lot. Only when the executive director’s husband said, “Gosh, the parking lot seems kinda rapey when so it’s so dark” did the parking lot lights get replaced– but only the lot, because she used it to park in when she went out to dinner with board members.
The same employer expected staff to come to work even when the water had been shut off at the site all day for repair work; fortunately, they could be convinced to close sites to the public on those occasions. I have worked in modern museum and research facilities without heat, light, or water because no quarter was given, and no exceptions were made for you to work at a different, functioning site.
For years, I was the on-call person for all alarms at the collections facilities. This meant that in the middle of the night, I had to go to the sites if the alarms were tripped. I had to go in alone, and was expected to sweep the facility and site for intruders. Eventually, I talked the police into a policy of staying with me until the sweep was complete, but I can assure you that a 16,000SF facility is creepy AF at 3:00 in the morning when the security alarm has gone off and you don’t know if someone has broken in or not.
Employers send very clear signals about how much they value employees and they punish employees in ways both small and large. Punishing an entire division, and putting the director put on six months probation because the director and division staff tried to follow the employee handbook and procedures to deal with a new hire who turned out to be incompetent and unwilling to work? Not great. The new hire was transferred to another division where the same behaviour played out, and caused great frustration to her new supervisor and colleagues. Eventually, she quit when it became clear that she was going to be let go and could no longer manipulate the system. For a division director to be told, in a meeting with the executive director, that “This isn’t your fault, and this isn’t about you– you’re here because of what other people did,” is not reassuring in the least. Punishing people for trying to follow the rules when the HR staff won’t will not generate good morale, or retention.
Employee leaves are another serious pressure point in museums. Often no one extra is hired and no tasks are reduced, but are instead spread across a variety of people. Sadly, when someone like a registrar takes an extended leave, and the museum refuses to reduce collecting or loans, someone has to process all the paperwork. Asking people who are already doing two jobs to take on a third is not uncommon. Directors reveal a great deal about themselves in the response they have when they’re approached with a request to reduce some of the workload because the person covering is burning out. Dismissing the request with “It’s just a few more weeks,” 10 weeks into a 16 week leave with major program planning starting on top of all the other tasks is not helpful, supportive, or collaborative.
Directors who say, “I’m the director, I always win,” when direct reports disagree with them, may find their direct reports seeking work elsewhere. I’ve heard directors complain about having to “seek consensus,” and chafe at having to convince boards to support changes to staff structure. Directors who chastise front line staff in front of the public and shake their fingers in the staff member’s face– and then turn out to be wrong about what they’re upset about, but refuse to apologize– are not as uncommon as you might hope.
Safety. Consistency. Respect. That’s all employees want, no matter where they work. They want policies that are applied equitably, and workplaces that do not place them in danger either by condition of the site or the attitude of the management. When any employer fails to provide those conditions, the result will be low morale and high turnover. The cost of those is significant, both in declining visitor experience and increased training.