Interview: Fighting for a First Contract at EcoTarium

On Thursday, July 11th of 2021, the workers at the EcoTarium museum in Worcester, MA voted to unionize. Worcester Independent Socialist Group sat down with Jake Dziejma, an EcoTarium worker and participant in the campaign to organize the workplace, to ask a few questions about what has happened and what may come next for these workers.

Q: What is the EcoTarium?

The EcoTarium is a museum of science and nature located just outside of downtown Worcester. We are home to dozens of animals including mountain lions, ducks, otters, chickens, snakes, an opossum, a fox, a pigeon, turtles, and so many others. We are also home to one of the oldest natural history collections in the United States. The original organization, the Worcester Lyceum of Natural History, was founded in 1825. 

Q: How many workers are part of the union?

I think there are about 30 people in the union–folks who didn’t have a vote, but are covered now. The vote was actually 15 to 1 (we had 6 abstentions). 

Q: Why did workers at the EcoTarium decide to organize? 

We were being really mistreated, not listened to, and kept in the dark about a lot of major decisions. The decisions being made did not seem to have workers or longevity in mind; those things go hand in hand. 

There actually has been a big push for unionization among museums in the past few years–even before the pandemic. Some of these organized museums include Mass MoCA, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the New Children’s Museum. I really recommend checking out the New Children’s Museum Union, they have a great website that outlines why and how they organized. There are actually so many recent case studies that I’d be here all week just listing them. 

A common thread in the trend is that: non-profit work is largely underpaid and museums are no different, plus workers at museums are highly skilled. Just like nurses and teachers, the narrative pushes them to be “thankful” for their job, silencing any complaints. (Solidarity with striking nurses at St. V’s!) 

Some museums, like us, had it coming for years and finally got that last push based on how they were treated during the pandemic. My coworker Rachel Quimby says it well. “The staff here are some of the most talented, devoted, caring people I’ve ever worked with, but we weren’t being supported,” Quimby said. “Decisions were being made without our input, decisions we did not agree with, and there was a lot of secretive stuff happening behind closed doors that we were totally cut out of.” Staff’s expertise was being ignored to the detriment of the institution. 

Last summer, we had 70% layoffs. The move was completely without warning and contrary to what we had been told. We were given the option to resign and get a severance package or stay on and maybe keep your job. Everyone in the Education department sent in our resignation letters together. 

Immediately after the layoffs, we had half an educator. I ended up being asked to stay on. My hours were split, half education, half animal care. I was so relieved to still have a job during the pandemic but I felt guilty being the one with a job. The environment at the museum was so mournful. Folks were legitimately scared for the future of this beloved museum. We went from 9 year-round staff in 2018 to 0.5 staff in 2020. Some staff had left before the layoffs due to the deterioration in work environment, but either way, Education is the reason we exist and these were devastating losses. Something had to be done. Luckily a few educators were able to come back and we were able to kickstart organizing. 

Q: What union are EcoTarium workers in?

We joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (ASFCME). They represent dozens of cultural institutions around the country. 

Q: Were any EcoTarium workers previously in a union?

Some were–and from a variety of places such as non-profits, a university union, and the carpenters’ union. We are an eclectic bunch! 

Some folks actually had unsavory feelings about unions when they first started, but their experience here pushed them pro-union and quickly–in a matter of weeks. Bad leadership is sometimes an effective organizer.

Q: Is there a first union contract yet?  If not, did negotiations start and how are they going?

We do not have our first contract yet. Negotiations will hopefully begin soon once we establish our bargaining committee. 

Q: What are the main demands, the main things workers at EcoTarium want and need?

We need better wages, job protections, and worker safety. We also want a hand in the future of our museum. Changes such as these would help the museum in the long run and far outweigh the cost. 

We all understand that working for a non-profit is putting out fire after fire for very little pay. We are not here for the money; however, we have very talented people with masters degrees making $19.25 an hour and doing the work of multiple workers. It’s not fair to us working at this breakneck speed and it’s not fair to our community who relies on our work as an educational institution. Our work suffers and so does the community when we are stretched too thin. So, we need more workers, and we need cost of living increases.

Rachel Quimby says it well, “we haven’t always felt safe here. There are some really important issues that need to be addressed, and we will hopefully build those into a contract so we can always stay not just respected but safe here at the workplace.”

We need safer working conditions. Zoo staff hasn’t always felt safe or heard by leadership when they bring up safety concerns. Many of these safety concerns are real and present dangers when they involve mountain lions as they could easily maul or kill a worker or guests. 

We want workplace protections and we want to be listened to. We need more transparency and structure in decision making. We are the ones who know our jobs and the realities of museums best.

I think as a field, going forward, museums could stretch our vision of what protections unions can bring us. What if we had labor protections for folks who get arrested for protesting wayward management and politics more generally. We are a “museum of science and nature,” but I’m scared of workplace pushback if I’m out protesting in support for science and nature. Protesting for our collective, livable future whether for the environment or for Black lives is only getting more and more criminalized while becoming more desperately needed. I pretty strongly believe that fear of repercussions at work (thus, losing wages, health insurance) keep a lot of people out of the street. Organizing can bring us bread for all,and roses too. 

We need better utilization of the staff’s knowledge and talent. We want to collaborate with other institutions and folks in the community but we’re being stretched far too thin. This makes deep, meaningful work, almost impossible. We want to ensure our energy is actually focused on fulfilling the mission rather than being tossed about in the wind. 

I know these would be huge changes to a workplace, but the changes mentioned above will only make our museum a better place for workers and enable us to serve our community more effectively. 

Q: What can members of other unions, pro-union people in general, and pro-union organizations do to help?

“Post on social media, support with dollars, write letters to our CEO… I think there is some fear among management that some of our big donors will pull their financial support because we’ve unionized, so the best thing organizations could do is to show us those fears are unfounded.”  -Rachel Quimby

Q: Is there support from other unions yet? Are workers in the union at the EcoTarium looking to get active in the labor movement or other activism in Worcester?

I’ve seen a little bit on social media, but beyond that, I’m not aware of anything like that.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

This whole experience has really shown me the hard way that the revolution will not hold 501(c)(3) status. Non-profit organizations, while not directly collecting profit, are still controlled by the rich via their board or other structures of leadership. Everything we (nonprofits generally, not just EcoTarium specifically) do and say must not jeopardize donors even if we know it is scientifically supported or politically just. 

To end on a positive note, organizing feels like the first good news to be shared about the EcoTarium in a long time. We love this museum and we love the work we do. This organization has seen a lot of change in 200 years and I am excited to see what the next 200 bring.