They are a familiar sight around Boston’s historic attractions: tour guides clad in tricorner hats and other Colonial-era garb, regaling visitors with tales of how a people broke free from an oppressive power.
It turns out, the Freedom Trail guides are feeling a little oppressed themselves these days.
The guides say they’ve wrecked their voices trying to make themselves heard over the roar of traffic and construction. They’ve suffered heat exhaustion after leading tours, some bedecked in wool, in blazing summer heat. They say they have worked while suffering from crippling back pain and food poisoning because they couldn’t find anyone to cover their shifts.
The guides, who work for a nonprofit foundation, got so fed up with their working conditions that they voted to unionize in February. Their main demands: the ability to use microphones, to cancel tours during bad weather, and to call in sick without feeling they have to find their own replacements.
What’s more, their base pay — $45 for a 90-minute public tour — hasn’t increased in 12 years, the guides said.
With the frigid New England winter approaching, improving their working conditions is an increasingly pressing matter. But as negotiations stretch into their ninth month, little progress has been made.
Unionization has been part of this country since the beginning, guides point out. Their union, the Bellringers Guild, is named for the workers’ association Paul Revere helped create in the mid-1700s when he was a bell ringer at the Old North Church.
“How are we going to be talking about the Boston Tea Party and people overthrowing this oppressive authority without doing it ourselves?” said Margaret Ann Brady, a 12-year guide who plays Mary Clapham, a widow who ran a boarding house near the Old State House.
Suzanne Taylor, executive director of the Freedom Trail Foundation, which employs the guides, did not directly respond to questions regarding the union’s complaints, but she said in a statement that the foundation “has been and continues to negotiate with our employees in good faith in order to reach an agreement for an initial collective bargaining agreement. We respect their right to collectively bargain and to free speech as we continue to work towards an agreement.”
The tour guides are part of a wave of workers who have reached out to Unite Here Local 26 on their own in recent years, said spokeswoman Tiffany Ten Eyck. Millennials and professionals are bringing new energy to a movement that used to be largely working class. Public support for unions is at a 15-year high, according to Gallup, bolstered by a string of high-profile strikes, including Unite Here’s national Marriott strike of 2018 that resulted in historic gains for Boston hotel workers.
The 30-plus guides work year-round, taking visitors to 16 historic sites along the 2 ½-mile Freedom Trail, including Paul Revere’s house and the site of the Boston Massacre. During peak times, there might be more than 14 tours a day, with groups ranging from as small as one or two people in the winter to 50 during the summer.
More than 4 million people tour the trail every year, according to the foundation’s website, and the numbers keep growing. This year, some 21 million people will visit Boston, up 1 million from last year, according to the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. And as the size of the tours grow, so does the pressure on guides. And that includes straining their voices to be heard over the din of a noisy city.
Providing portable microphones would solve this, the guides say, but the foundation owns only four and is reluctant to let guides use them. The nonprofit says it takes away from the historical experience.
“The idea is absurd because if [visitors] can’t hear, that takes them out of the experience,” said Emma Wiegand, who has been a guide for four years and portrays Lydia Mulliken, the fiancee of Samuel Prescott, a doctor who was part of Paul Revere’s midnight ride.
The honking horns and Dunkin’ Donuts shops along the trail also aren’t historically accurate, the guides point out.
Many of the professionally trained guides have side jobs, but the Freedom Trail work is often their primary source of income. In addition to stagnant base pay, they say, discounted tickets also take a toll. Guides receive $2 for each full-price ticket sold on public tours after the first 10 people, but they get only $1 when guests buy reduced-price tickets.
Between April and October, Wiegand estimated, she has lost $407 from discounted tickets.
Guides are also calling for clearer policies for canceling tours when there’s lightning or extreme cold or heat. When Tim Hoover started giving tours in 2009, he said, guides were allowed to cancel tours when the temperature dipped below 20 degrees. But they no longer have that discretion.
The foundation director’s response: “We try not to cancel tours.”
Working outside in foul weather can also lead to people getting sick, and tour guides said they are expected to find their own replacements when they are ill. As if that’s not hard enough, they said, they are also expected to be entertaining.
“You have to walk through freezing rain and make jokes about Benjamin Franklin,” said Anna Waldron, a former Freedom Trail tour guide who said management made her come into work when she couldn’t find a substitute.
The foundation abides by the state sick time law, Taylor said, which forbids employers from requiring employees to find their own replacements.
The tour guides aren’t asking for much, said Local 26’s Ten Eyck — just consistent policies that will preserve their health and safety — and it’s “offensive” that the Freedom Trail Foundation isn’t being more responsive.
In the meantime, guides have used their expertise in history and entertainment to spread awareness about their contract fight. Over the summer, they handed out fliers reading: “We can’t wait to tell you about the enslaved man who spearheaded smallpox inoculation. . . . We would just prefer to not be sick while doing it.”
The guides emphasized they wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t love their jobs.
“We want to make this the best possible workplace for everyone,” Brady said. “We want the foundation to succeed.”
On a recent sunny day, guide Gabriel Graetz , who plays renowned Colonial-era painter John Singleton Copley, led a tour of 40 people through the centuries-old downtown streets.
“Part of being in a living, breathing city is you might get run over,” he said, ushering the group to the side of the footpath as a large truck drove onto Boston Common.
Tereza Jurikova , a coordinator of educational tours in Prague, was impressed with what she saw.
“I admire the dedication and enthusiasm,” she said of Graetz. “It seems like the hardest tour guide job I’ve encountered anywhere during my travels.”