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Facing “Job Insecurity, Inequitable Conditions, Low Salaries,” MASS MoCA Staff To Unionize

A tent with signs in front of a large brick complex
Josh Landes
The entrance to MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.

On Monday, the staff of the sprawling modern art museum MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts declared their intent to form a union. A press release detailed concerns around equity, compensation, job security and a round of layoffs in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The museum employs around 130 people. The Local 2110 UAW estimates around 100 of them would be eligible to be part of the union. Staff spokesperson and Associate Director of Education Amanda Tobin – a seven-year veteran of the museum – spoke to WAMC about what led to the unionization effort.

TOBIN: There was a lot of feeling for many years that we felt underpaid, undervalued, overworked. And then last year, the COVID related layoffs really laid bare the ways that we aren’t protected and the ways that we feel that we should be. And so, I was one of the folks laid off. And then when I was rehired in May, we all just started talking again about, you know, this seems like the moment to actually try and make this happen. Because it's been happening all across the country, and it's sort of now or never. When else would it would it work, you know? So we started having those conversations over the summer right around when the museum opened back up to the public.

WAMC: Now, what kind of benefits would unionization bring to the staff at MASS MoCA?

We don't have a specific list yet, that'll be determined in this next phase of what are our hopes and dreams are, but broadly speaking, we are looking for better working conditions, better health and safety protocols, fair pay, better benefits, and just to help steer MASS MoCA towards a more inclusive, equitable future with its diversity, equity inclusion initiatives as well.

Now, you've been at MASS MoCA for some time. I'm interested, this move comes after the departure of founding director Joe Thompson last year: could this have happened during the Joe Thompson tenure? Is there any relation to his exit and this effort fomenting to the point where it is today?

It's really a kind of a coincidence that- You know, we had already been talking before he announced his departure. But I think it opens up an opportunity for us. As you know, as an institution, we are very much thinking, doing a lot of reflection and thinking about who we've been and who we want to be. And this is definitely part of that conversation and part of meeting a new director, whoever that person will be, on equal footing.

Now, when it comes to conversations with the museum itself, what is this part of the process like?

It's in MASS MoCA’s court right now. And so I'm really hopeful, and I think I speak on behalf of the union as well, that they'll recognize this as our democratic right to unionize, and they'll work with us collaboratively to negotiate a contract, and just build a stronger relationship with our staff.

Now, which union are you working with to actually create the MASS MoCA staff union?

We’re working with local 2110, which is a division of the United Auto Workers Union. And they represent MoMA, the New Museum, the newly organized union at the MFA Boston and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. So they're just really doing good work with the museum field, and we wanted to partner up with them.

So what's the conversation like on that nationwide level? And as you mentioned, a lot of museums are going through this process. How did you reach out to other staffs around the country to have this conversation?

It's been such an incredible project really, to connect with people, to build solidarity across institutions across the country. And some of that is through, you know, MASS MoCA has a lot of interns who have gone through and are now at other organizations across the country, and some of those organizations have unionized. So that was the sort of first step to tap our networks. But people have been so supportive, so welcoming, so excited for us throughout this process, even just seeing the wave of support already on social media from the other unions, you know, it makes me feel pretty emotional to be a part of it.

You talk before we started recording about the emotion of the moment. Can you tell me what that's like among the staff? Again, it's been such a brutal year, you talked about the sweeping layoffs at MASS MoCA. The symbolism of this coming in the in the spring of 2021 can't be can't be lost on your community. What's that like?

It's really surreal. Right now, I think that we have been working towards this for so long, that there's just a lot of pent up emotion and joy, and just lots of energy, I think. And, yeah, you're right, that because it's been such a hard year, and there's really, you know, we keep getting a light at the end of the tunnel, and then it moves further and further away throughout the whole pandemic. But this really feels like something to celebrate, and something concrete that will that will last for generations to come.

This also comes at the same time as an anonymous group on Instagram called Change Berkshire Culture posting about what's going on inside the nonprofit art sector in the county. And there have been some stories coming out of MASS MoCA about misconduct from senior staffers and frustrations with the employment there. Is there any parallel between that movement and this effort to unionize?

It saddens me really that people, arts workers, who are dedicated and talented staff, feel like these anonymous channels are their only recourse for being heard. And I think it really shows that the traditional channels of communication aren't sufficient anymore and haven't been for a very long time. And these accounts, whether Change Berkshire Culture, or Change The Museum nationwide, really demonstrate the need for more organized labor within the arts and culture sector. So I think that I'm really excited to be part of this new wave of arts worker unions that you know, hopefully can fix some of those issues.

As of Monday afternoon, MASS MoCA had no comment on the unionization effort. MASS MoCA is a WAMC underwriter.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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