As Plimoth Plantation opened its Pilgrim Village and Wampanoag Homesite to visitors last week for a new season, talks between the living history museum’s management and its union workers have collapsed. And, union members say, museum staffing policies are affecting the quality of visitors’ experiences.
“We’re understaffed,” Pilgrim interpreter Kate Moore said following the March 17 opening. “Fences are falling down. Two school groups arrived at the same time yesterday when only four interpreters were in the village.”
Fewer Pilgrim interpreters means fewer people for visitors to learn from. “We heard from a [school] chaperone that they saw only one interpreter,” said Moore, the union’s chairwoman.
She said that in earlier years the museum assigned 15 to 20 interpreters to the village, but now the number is generally below 10, and there is just one worker assigned to each Pilgrim house this year, not two as in the past.
The museum also tore down one of its historically accurate, thatched-roof Pilgrim houses, Moore said, because it was unsafe. Expert artisans used to maintain the houses, but the museum no longer has an “artisan department,” she said.
“We are afraid of the deterioration going on in the last few years,” said longtime Pilgrim interpreter John Kemp. “That’s why we have unionized.”
Plimoth Plantation spokeswoman Kate Sheehan attributed the low staffing in the village at the season’s start to “open positions.”
“We are actively looking to fill them,” she said.
She blamed the fallen fences on the March nor’easters. She also said the Pilgrim house was torn down because the museum plans to replace it. “Nothing is changed to our practice,” she said.
But union members say persistent understaffing, low pay, and deteriorating working conditions and their consequences for visitors’ experience and safety drove workers to organize the local union of 70 interpreters and craft center artisans, including bakers, potters, and candle-makers.
After a year of negotiations, the museum withdrew its recognition of the union, contending that a majority of the interpreters and artisans no longer wished to be represented by the union. The union challenged that assertion in a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the museum’s management and its law firm pressured employees into signing a statement rejecting the union.
Sheehan strongly denied the charge.
“The museum received the petition and acted in accordance with the wishes of a majority of the formerly unionized employees,” she said.
In a later statement, Sheehan said “talks have not and did not collapse.”
“The museum negotiated in good faith from the outset of bargaining,” she stated. “In fact the museum was preparing for the next bargaining session when management received the petition from the majority of the formerly-unionized employees.”
The two sides are not talking while they wait for the federal government’s labor board to address their petitions. Though the fledgling union conducted public rallies and demonstrations last year, Moore said her group is “not planning any actions at this time.”
“Though that may change,” she added. “We want them to get back to the bargaining table.”
Long a highly regarded museum of Pilgrim life in the 1620s, Plimoth Plantation offers a “living history” experience that relies on “first-person interpreters” who take on the identities of Pilgrims and interact with visitors. The museum’s Wampanoag Homesite is staffed by Native People from a modern perspective.
But the museum’s interpreters, while trained in their job’s specialized skills, say they are poorly compensated as seasonal workers. And in recent years, some of them contend, deteriorating work conditions have caused safety problems.
Moore cited an incident in which an interpreter saw a visiting child fall but couldn’t leave her station to help the youngster because of safety concerns and a lack of backup.
“They have reduced both the number of staff and the training significantly,” said Kemp, a former manager of the interpreter department. “The plantation is a dangerous place. In both the village and the homesite, there are open fires, sharp tools that could be used as weapons, and large animals.”
On some days, some workers said, a lack of backup has made it impossible for the Pilgrim-costumed interpreters to leave their station in the village to go to the bathroom.
Sheehan declined to address the workers’ assertions of poor work conditions and safety problems, and said that management has behaved properly.
“The formerly unionized employees have spoken,” she stated, “and we are not going to engage in a back-and-forth over baseless allegations and misrepresentations.”
Asked to comment on the new season’s opening days, Sheehan said, “The season is off to a great start.”
Susan DeMaria, a United Auto Workers organizer working with the museum workers, said management pressured employees to renounce the union after two rounds of picketing outside Plimoth Plantation gained sympathy for their cause, including a letter of support from the local teachers union. She also said some workers suffered retaliation after joining the union, including intimidation by managers, and reductions in pay and job status.
The museum bargaining unit, called the Society of Allied Museum Professionals, is seeking higher wages, improved conditions, and fair treatment. DeMaria said many interpreters are paid close to the state’s $11 an hour minimum wage, with no scheduled annual increases. The union is looking to raise the opening wage to $15 an hour.
Contract negotiations began last year with twice-monthly sessions. But instead of seeking compromise and consensus, DeMaria said, the museum hired a high-powered law firm to handle the negotiations. She estimated the nonprofit museum has paid the firm Jackson Lewis hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than give workers modest raises.
Sheehan defended management’s response as both legal and sensible.
“We did hire Jackson Lewis,” Sheehan said. “We’re not experts on labor relations. . . . We hired an expert.”
The museum did not respond to a query on how much it has paid Jackson Lewis. A “statement of activities” it filed as a nonprofit organization with the state for the year 2016 listed total revenues of $17.3 million, $7.6 million of which was either temporarily or permanently restricted for use only as specified by donors -- in this case, for the museum’s endowment, the Mayflower II restoration, or other capital campaign projects. Total expenses that year were listed as $9.93 million.
“They’re a big nonprofit, nationally known,” DeMaria said. “This is a respected educational facility. We considered them progressive. It’s a shame they’ve stooped to dirty anti-union tactics, and spending their money this way.”
Sheehan responded to a request to speak to Plimoth Plantation executive director Ellie Donovan with a comment attributed to Donovan that referenced “dynamic initiatives we have underway to continue achieving the Museum’s mission” but did not address the union’s assertions of problems.
“We are focused on moving forward together. Everyone at the museum is excited about Mayflower II’s return in 2019 and the 400th anniversary in 2020,” Donovan stated.
This story has been updated to include additional information about the museum’s revenues and management’s position on the contract negotiations.