Field Museum Workers Say It’s Time for the CEO to Start Making Sacrifices, Too

Jeff Schuhrke June 12, 2020

Backed by DSA and UE, Field Museum workers are demanding justice amid Covid-19 cuts. (Photo by Joel Lerner/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Fac­ing dev­ast­ing pay cuts and lay­offs amid the Covid-19 cri­sis, work­ers at Chicago’s Field Muse­um are orga­niz­ing to demand greater trans­paren­cy and equi­table sac­ri­fice from upper management.

We fear these cuts will dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact staff of col­or and those already paid the least,” Field Muse­um work­ers explain in a peti­tion that has now gar­nered over 1,700 sig­na­tures. We are proud to call the Field home, and are pre­pared to make sac­ri­fices to pre­serve it for gen­er­a­tions to come. We are ask­ing lead­er­ship to do the same.”

Best known for being the home of SUE, the most intact T. rex skele­ton in the world, the Field is the nation’s third largest nat­ur­al his­to­ry muse­um after the Smith­son­ian and New York’s Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry. As of 2019, the muse­um had an endow­ment of approx­i­mate­ly $440 mil­lion, up from $299 mil­lion in 2012.

The muse­um has been shut­tered since mid-March due to the pan­dem­ic, and it remains unclear when it will be able to reopen to the pub­lic. Though the Field secured a loan from the fed­er­al Pay­check Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram and 70% of its rev­enue comes from sources oth­er than tick­et sales, at a May 19 vir­tu­al town hall with employ­ees, CEO Richard Lar­iv­iere announced an impend­ing 10% pay cut as well as an unspec­i­fied num­ber of layoffs.

At the town hall, we had a lot of staff propos­ing alter­na­tives and var­i­ous cost-cut­ting ideas like rotat­ing fur­loughs, grad­u­at­ed pay reduc­tions, and reduc­ing hours, and ask­ing if those had been explored,” says Anna Vil­lanyi, an edu­ca­tor who has worked at the muse­um for two years. But those ideas were dis­missed with­out trans­paren­cy about to what degree lead­er­ship had already explored them.”

Lariviere’s total com­pen­sa­tion in 2018 — the most recent year with avail­able data — was $796,000. While the pres­i­dents of the Boston Muse­um of Sci­ence and Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry have respec­tive­ly tak­en a 50% and 25% pay cut in light of the cri­sis, Lar­iv­iere report­ed­ly dis­missed the idea of reduc­ing his own com­pen­sa­tion as a mean­ing­less gesture.”

A lot of muse­ums are expe­ri­enc­ing hard­ship due to this time, and we can see the dif­fer­ent ways that is being addressed,” Vil­lanyi tells In These Times. We have such a large and seem­ing­ly finan­cial­ly sta­ble insti­tu­tion that’s choos­ing not to make equi­table moves like grad­u­at­ed pay cuts that oth­er muse­ums are doing.”

The Field Museum’s near­ly 400 employ­ees include sci­en­tists, col­lec­tion man­agers, edu­ca­tors, tech­ni­cians, guest ser­vices work­ers, main­te­nance work­ers and secu­ri­ty guards. Many, like Vil­lanyi, have been work­ing from home dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, but oth­ers, like those who man­age the upkeep of the museum’s exhibits, are not able to work from home.

Staff who can work remote­ly have been donat­ing their vaca­tion hours to their cowork­ers who don’t have the option of work­ing from home, ensur­ing they con­tin­ue receiv­ing income. It has been a real­ly help­ful act of sac­ri­fice,” Vil­lanyi says. I believe it’s been over $200,000 worth of vaca­tion hours that have been donat­ed into that pool.”

In addi­tion to aid­ing one anoth­er through the cri­sis, Field Muse­um employ­ees have also been help­ing the pub­lic by sewing face masks and repur­pos­ing 3‑D print­ers to make face shields for front­line workers.

The muse­um work­ers are specif­i­cal­ly call­ing for a mora­to­ri­um on pay cuts and lay­offs until they can have a greater voice in cost-cut­ting mea­sures, par­tic­u­lar­ly by hav­ing a staff rep­re­sen­ta­tive present at all future bud­get meetings.

I’m hope­ful that the increased aware­ness through our peti­tion puts pres­sure on account­abil­i­ty for those things to hap­pen,” Vil­lanyi says.

Their orga­niz­ing effort is being assist­ed by the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (EWOC), a joint project of the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA).

EWOC was launched short­ly after the pan­dem­ic hit the Unit­ed States to give non-union work­ers the resources need­ed to orga­nize their own work­places around coro­n­avirus-relat­ed demands like haz­ard pay, sick leave and pro­vi­sion of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equipment.

UE Inter­na­tion­al Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mark Mein­ster says that over 1,000 work­ers from a range of indus­tries includ­ing fast food, man­u­fac­tur­ing, meat­pack­ing, retail and high­er edu­ca­tion have received advice and assis­tance through EWOC on how to take work­place action around Covid-19 relat­ed issues.

With help from EWOC, work­ers around the coun­try have already won sev­er­al vic­to­ries, includ­ing improved health and safe­ty mea­sures for gro­cery work­ers in Texas and Penn­syl­va­nia, and haz­ard pay for 250 Taco Bell work­ers in Michigan.

Mein­ster says that most of the work of EWOC is done through vol­un­teers includ­ing DSA mem­bers, for­mer Bernie Sanders cam­paign staff and UE activists.

We’re build­ing on mod­els devel­oped around the Bernie Sanders cam­paign of doing dis­trib­uted orga­niz­ing — where you’ve got a large group of moti­vat­ed vol­un­teers — and apply that mod­el to work­place orga­niz­ing,” Mein­ster explains. That’s one of the keys to revi­tal­iz­ing a fight­ing labor move­ment. We’ve got to fig­ure out how to go beyond mere staff resources and engage lots of moti­vat­ed peo­ple out there.”

Mein­ster says the Field Muse­um orga­niz­ing is a per­fect exam­ple of work­ers organ­i­cal­ly com­ing togeth­er and reach­ing out to EWOC for assis­tance. Like all muse­um work­ers, they’re fac­ing some real dif­fi­cult fights,” he says. But here we’re see­ing work­ers start to stand up and do some­thing about it.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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