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“Without a Union, Nothing Is Really Promised”

Kaitlyn Chandler

In the face of management scare tactics, workers at New York’s landmark Brooklyn Academy of Music are pushing to unionize. They’re joining a wave of cultural workers organizing their workplaces.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in Fort Greene, New York, June 12, 2013. Spencer Platt / Getty

Interview by
Meagan Day

The Brooklyn Academy of Music was founded in 1861 and has been continuously showcasing the performing arts at its location in the Fort Greene neighborhood since 1908. The institution has long been a leader in avant-garde cultural production, fostering radical artists from Philip Glass to Merce Cunningham. Now BAM may be about to do something else radical: unionize.

But the executive staff at BAM are pushing back. In documents shared with Jacobin, they assured workers that “we will do everything we can to make sure you have the information to make your own decision about the future relationship you want to see between BAM and its employees” — and then presented only the scariest “facts” about unionization they could find. For example, they emphasized that you can — theoretically — be fired for not paying union dues. Of course, in a nonunionized workplace, including BAM, you can already be fired for nearly any reason management decides.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke with Kaitlyn Chandler, a video editor and motion designer who has worked at BAM for three-and-a-half years, about why BAM workers want to join United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110.


MD

What is BAM’s mission?

KC

BAM is an institution dedicated to bringing avant-garde art and ideas to Brooklyn. What we know today as BAM came into its own in the 1980s with our past president and artistic director Harvey Lichtenstein. When you work here, that history is all around you.

MD

And how do BAM workers factor into that mission?

KC

BAM works because we do. I’ve never met a more talented, smart, and kind group of people. And we all believe in the mission. Whenever you tell people where you work, they immediately say, “Oh my god I love BAM,” and that fills you with a sense of pride and joy. I’m very proud of the place I work.

MD

What does your job consist of?

KC

I make the trailers for BAM shows, archive at least one performance of each BAM show, and I make animated trailers for BAM festivals. Basically, if there’s moving pixels, I and the rest of the video team probably have a hand in it.

MD

How many people are you trying to bring into the new union?

KC

It’s between 160 and 180 right now. Stagehands and some construction and security are already unionized. Our union would represent white-collar administrative and retail workers.

MD

I spoke to a MoMA worker recently who told me the same thing about her and her coworkers all being proud of where they work, but she also added, “You can’t eat prestige.” So why do you and your coworkers need a union?

KC

Past presidents of BAM have said, “It’s not a job, it’s a crusade.” But it is a job. For ten years or longer, workers at BAM have only seen a loss of benefits. We lost the matching 401k; our pension plan now means that newer employees get less. Full-time jobs are being replaced and BAM increasingly relies on part-time, insecure jobs that pay minimum wage or just slightly above. Meanwhile, some full-time jobs don’t even get benefits or paid time off.

So we’ve only lost, and we haven’t gained anything. Starting a union is an effort to sustain what we have now and possibly get even more. And we think that BAM can really benefit if the workers are treated more fairly.

MD

What are your salaries like?

KC

Right now, there’s no documentation for how you get a merit-based raise. They do happen, but it’s unclear how, and there’s no clear path to advancement. Workers sometimes get cost-of-living raises, but sometimes we don’t even get that.

We have asked over and over how they plan to keep our salaries consistent with the rising cost of living in New York City, and BAM executive staff has always told us that they benchmark salaries with other institutions of a similar size, but we haven’t actually seen significant proof of that, and we’ve asked for it multiple times. As far as we can tell, the only comparable institution with salaries as low as ours is the Bushwick Starr, and they’re a much smaller institution than BAM.

MD

You and your coworkers have also had concerns about health care premiums rising, right?

KC

Right, health premiums rose dramatically in November. It used to cost $15 to get a prescription filled, and now it’s $50. It used to cost $100 to go to the emergency room and now it’s $500. When we raise this, executive staff usually says, “Well it could be a lot worse.”

But that’s just one element of the full health care picture here. There are workers I know who have had mold growing around their stations for months, and they bring it up and it doesn’t get addressed. Meanwhile, if a new director is hired, BAM will pay to renovate their whole office for them.

We have new mothers who have been told they have to clock out in order to go pump. Some departments will make you do that, others won’t. A union can help us standardize practices that are good for employees.

MD

So executive staff get their offices renovated while workers are stuck with untreated mold. How about salaries? Is there a major disparity in pay between workers and executive staff?

KC

There is. The highest-paid person at BAM is the new artistic director, who makes $400,000 a year. The new president, Katie Clark, makes $337,000, and she also got a $1,000,000 relocation bonus when she was hired. The CFO makes $317,000. We have executive vice presidents who make $260,000, and the vice president of development makes $231,000. There’s a director of leadership gifts who makes $186,000. All the vice presidents make at least $124,000.

Meanwhile we have workers who have been here for fifteen years who don’t even make $60,000, and there’s no road map for advancement. Whenever we bring this up at staff meetings, we’re told that there’s a significant deficit that BAM is trying to fill. And this is while they’re also investing in the construction of new buildings.

MD

How did you go about convincing people to consider forming a union?

KC

We started off with just a few people in different departments, some in marketing, one in archives, one in development. And we began to talk to each other, and then to our coworkers. We would seek out people who were our friends, or who we thought might politically align with us. It grew organically from there.

One problem we encountered was the high turnover. People often leave BAM after a few years to work for another institution that offers a higher salary. But when somebody left, we would try to make sure that we maintained contact with certain departments or buildings.

We had all these one-on-one meetings that were just us saying, “Hey we’re trying to maybe do this thing.” And then asking, “What do you think about it? How could you see BAM being better?” And we’re still having those meetings.

MD

How has the executive staff responded to this effort?

KC

They’ve been threatening that there will be drastic changes that will be mostly negative. They haven’t said one positive thing that unionizing could do for us, a strategy geared toward getting us to vote no.

They’re really leaning on how much the dues are going to cost and how that will affect us. They’re saying, “UAW can’t guarantee you anything, and although we will bargain in good faith, you may end up with the same wages and benefits you have now, but you’ll have less take-home pay due to the union.”

 

MD

It’s funny when management says stuff like that, as if they weren’t personally responsible for deciding how much you get paid.

KC

Right, and it’s hard because even though we have other workers at BAM who are already unionized, there are plenty of white-collar workers here who don’t understand how unions work. So right now executive staff are just fearmongering and trying to sow as much confusion about the union as possible. And they’re outright lying about things, saying the law doesn’t allow them to give merit-based raises when that’s not true.

MD

Why did you guys decide to go with UAW Local 2110?

KC

We chose them because they represent a lot of other cultural workers in New York City, and they have a lot of experience negotiating white-collar contracts around the complicated hierarchies that can exist in cultural institutions.

MD

I’ve been talking to other cultural workers joining UAW Local 2110 and they all tell me the same thing, that it can be difficult to convince people who work white-collar jobs that a union is for them when there’s an image out there that unions are only for hardhats — and that this is further complicated in cultural institutions where there’s this idea that since the institution does something culturally valuable, workers need to make sacrifices.

KC

I definitely encounter this in my conversations. People sometimes think that a union is for construction workers and stagehands, not for them. I always talk to them about their job security — as an at-will employee you can be fired at any time. Or they could promise you a raise and then that could change. Or they could change when you get evaluated, which creates a moving target for when you can even ask for a raise.

Without a union, nothing is really promised, no matter how good your organization is or how noble the mission. They can basically ask you to leave any day without cause. Or they can give you something, but on the condition that you give something up in return. At BAM they’ve started requiring people to sign non-disclosure agreements or they won’t get severance. It’s just a horrible practice: if we’re everything that we portray ourselves to be in the community, we shouldn’t be afraid of what people have to say after working here.

I’ve heard workers say, “We don’t need a union, people who work at McDonald’s do.” But we should just do both. Working at a cultural institution shouldn’t mean that we have to live piously and be martyrs for its mission.

MD

Has the rising cost of living in New York City made people think more seriously about the need for union representation?

KC

Definitely. It’s hard to make ends meet for pretty much for anybody in New York City on a small salary. One thing that the anti-union campaign is trying to drive home is the idea that we won’t necessarily take home more money, and we’ll also have this extra cost of union dues hanging over our head. But in reality, there’s never been a viable way for us to get more money at BAM, and the cost of living just keeps going up.

A lot of us live very far away from the museum, which is in Fort Greene. At one of our first meeting with the new president Katie Clark, we asked about the rising costs of living in Brooklyn and elsewhere in New York and how BAM plans to fill that gap. She gave a very noncommittal and convoluted answer. And then the next question was, “What is your favorite thing about working at BAM?” and she answered, “I love that I can walk to work!” Well, a lot of us can’t do that.

MD

Where are you at in the process of joining the union right now?

KC

We just got our vote date, which will be June 13. We’ve come to a stipulated agreement with BAM, and now we’re going to start contacting everybody, letting people know about the vote date, and making sure everybody understand what unionizing means. We’ve been having continuous conversations about this for two years, and I’m hopeful that we can win.

I’m also hopeful for change. BAM has been here longer than any other performing arts center, and it’s really going to be making history. I’m excited for us to unionize, and I hope other institutions will follow.