Museum Educators Unite: Unionizing the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Museum Educators Unite: Unionizing the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

On April 15th, 2019, a group of workers in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s departments of Education, Visitor Services, Retail, and Advance Sales voted 72–3 to join United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, joining a growing movement of museum professionals forming unions in New York City.

The Tenement Museum is a unique institution. Housed in two late-nineteenth century tenement buildings on Orchard Street, one of which has largely been converted into a modern gift shop, the museum is accessible only by tours, facilitated and led by the combined efforts of the above departments. When you arrive at the museum, you walk into a bright, busy bookshop on the hectic corner of Orchard and Delancey Streets and get a ticket for your tour. Maybe you called ahead to the office of Advance Sales, and all you need to give at the desk is your name, but Visitor Services will also recommend a program that best fits your interests if you’re a first-time visitor. At the time on your ticket, you’ll hear an announcement summoning you to the front of the shop to meet your educator, who will lead you and your fellow visitors out onto the street and then down the block into 97 Orchard Street, built in 1863 and home to about 7,000 immigrants over the following 72 years.

Depending on which tour you chose, your educator might lead you down a number of different historical paths. Maybe you’ll be on the fourth floor, discussing the Irish-American experience, the construction of race, and healthcare inequality through the story of a couple who lost their daughter to preventable disease in the 1860s. Or you could be in the basement, standing over a table spread with German pretzels and pickled pigs’ knuckles, hearing about the role lager beer played in the creation of a cohesive, politically active German-American community in New York even before the unification of Germany in 1871. And if you’re interested in the story of labor organizing among Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century, you might be standing in the parlor of the Rogarshevsky family, watching your educator hold up a photograph of Clara Lemlich, the union organizer who, with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, organized a strike of 20,000 young women in New York’s garment industry just two years before the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 exposed the plight of these same workers to the entire nation.

After your tour, you’ll return to the glassy gift shop and maybe spend some time browsing the shelves and asking the retail staff for book recommendations that can help you follow the story you heard inside the building. And if, after your visit to the Tenement Museum, you hear that the museum’s staff—the same workers who sold you your ticket, told you those stories, and pointed you to a book on the labor struggles of generations past—have just formed a union, you might be surprised that labor struggles can exist even in that progressive, glass-walled present.

But the story of the newly minted Tenement Museum Union is, like the museum itself, something new—a twist on a history we all think we know.

Our histories tell us that union organizing is born out of conflict and desperation, a last resort for workers pushed to the very breaking point by the injustices forced on them by indiscriminate and possibly morally bankrupt bosses. The story of Clara Lemlich and the Uprising of 20,000 appears bookended by tragedy, from the pogrom that necessitated Lemlich’s emigration from Gorodok, Ukraine to the fire that resulted in the deaths of 146 of her fellow workers on March 25, 1911. Bearing images like this from our history, how could we not imagine the story of a Tenement Museum Union as fraught with misery, controversy, and hypocrisy?

Yet what our study of immigration and labor history at the Tenement Museum reveals, more than anything, is the ordinariness of these stories: the peace, the satisfaction, and undramatic humanity that reside on the slopes between history’s dramatic highs and lows.

Meetings of educators and other public-facing staff in the months leading up to the vote have reflected that same humanity. Far from the fist-raising, emotionally charged rallies that characterize popular views of labor history, our meetings have centered around generosity, inclusivity, and snacks. We gathered in part to evaluate the difficulties in our workplace that had drawn us into conversation—wages, hours, sustainability, and safety; in other words, the same issues that all workers struggle with, no matter the time or place. But more than that, we talked about the joys and strengths that make this work worth unionizing for. The refrain of our union movement has been, again and again, one of love for the museum and its community: “I love this job.” “I want to make sure I can stay here long-term.” “I believe a union will make our museum stronger.”

What we in the Tenement Museum Union are seeking to do is something perhaps as radical as what Lemlich did in 1909—and yet also radically different from what Lemlich and other turn-of-the-century reformers sought. Our union movement has its basis not in conflict, but in a positive spirit of inclusivity and communal uplift; not in dire circumstances, but in the desire of public-facing staff to define our active role in the Tenement Museum’s rapid and ongoing growth. In an era of the lowest union membership in the country’s history, we’re seeking to create a model for museums of unionization not as a last resort or a divisive struggle, but as a form of peaceful empowerment that honors the role all workers play not just in our histories, but in our present.

R.E. Fulton earned a master's degree in American History at the University of Rochester in 2015. Their master's thesis dealt with popular texts on abortion written by physicians in the mid-19th century, and previous research has focused on science fiction publishing in the mid-twentieth century. A student of medical historians who vowed never to become a historian of science, Fulton is now fascinated by questions surrounding history, medicine, print culture, feminism, and popular science.