This year’s Thanksgiving feast at Plimoth Plantation might come with a side of picketing.
The Plymouth “living history” museum’s recently unionized historical interpreters, craft center artisans, and maintenance workers are demanding that management address “dangerously low” staffing levels, as well as concerns about workplace safety, job insecurity, and low wages.
For seven months, both sides have been negotiating the terms of the union’s first contract but remain so far apart on so many issues, union officials said, that members have begun discussing the possibility of picketing or other actions.
“It’s been very frustrating,” said Susan DeMaria, regional organizer for United Auto Workers Local 2320, which organized the workers and formed the local chapter of the Society of Allied Museum Professionals. “We are hoping [Plimoth Plantation officials] bargain in good faith, but basically their tactic is stalling.”
Plantation spokeswoman Kate Sheehan said museum officials are “bargaining in good faith and we will do that at the bargaining table.” Sheehan said management especially disagrees with the union’s claims about health and safety conditions. “Employee and guest safety are and have always been the museum’s priority,” she said.
The union represents about 50 of the museum’s 180 full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees. By a narrow margin of three votes, interpreters, artisans, and maintenance workers voted in November to unionize, said Kate Moore, who is chair of the Society of Allied Museum Professionals chapter and has worked at the museum for 22 years. Plimoth Plantation includes a replica 17th-century English village and a Wampanoag Native American campsite. It’s open from March through November.
“When I started in 1995, anything less than 15 interpreters in the English village in the day was cause to press the panic button; we usually had 18 to 20,” said Moore, who now plays the role of Mayflower passenger Eleanor Billington. “Today, we maybe have eight to 10.”
Low staffing levels mean interpreters can often find themselves working alone inside village houses for long periods, she said, unable to take bathroom breaks unless they can flag down another interpreter. Moore said her role as Billington requires her to cook over an open fire in one of the houses, which she can’t leave unattended.
Because the interpreters are in costume and have to stay in character at all times, they use an unpaved pathway through the woods to head to a carriage house, about five minutes from the village, where they take breaks.
“We work in borderline dangerous conditions,” she said. “One of our retirees has stumbled several times, brought it to the attention of management and was quite vocal about it, and lo and behold, he didn’t get asked back this season.”
Museum officials said staffing levels have remained consistent for several years but can vary depending on the needs of each season. Financially, the museum has been hurt by a drop in the number of visitors this year, mainly due to the absence of the Mayflower II, about 3 miles north in Plymouth harbor. The replica ship left last year to undergo a $7.5 million restoration in Connecticut until 2019. About 360,000 people visit the plantation annually. It has an annual operating budget of between $8.5 million and $9 million.
“All of our efforts to achieve stability occur as many museums, including Plimoth, face lower attendance,” said Stephen Brodeur, chairman of Plimoth Plantation’s Board of Trustees. “Despite the challenges, we continue to focus on providing engaging and educational experiences for our visitors.”
Rita Hutchinson, a historical interpreter who voted against unionizing, said she agrees that staffing levels are lower than they should be, but that in the nearly 31 years she has worked at the museum, workers and management have been able to resolve issues.
“Some of my colleagues, some of the things they said and asked for, they don’t understand the economic realities for the next two years of the museum,” Hutchinson said. “There have been some tense moments in the museum and we have been able to work things out without bringing a union in.”
Union representatives said they have not discussed establishing a negotiation deadline and have no plans to walk off the job. DeMaria said the union suggested bringing in a federal mediator, but that museum management refused, saying it was too soon into negotiations. For now, the two sides will continue meeting twice a month.