Not Child’s Play

Kids may be having a ball at the Chicago Children’s Museum, but behind the scenes staff and management are locked in a bitter battle. Last month, 75 of the museum’s 100 employees signed a petition to initiate a unionizing drive. If these employees are successful in an upcoming election, they’ll be the first museum workers in the city to join a union.

The Chicago Children’s Museum has grown by leaps and bounds since opening 16 years ago in what’s now the Chicago Cultural Center. Currently it’s a flagship tenant at Navy Pier, where it has occupied palatial digs since the fall of 1995. But the museum’s recent growth has required an almost constant restructuring of operations, breeding discontent among the rank and file. The latest plan, announced June 1, called for the breaking up of existing departments, the demotion of several directors to the position of manager, and the elimination of some programs. “What we are dealing with here is a fundamental lack of respect for the people who work here,” says Mariana Goodwin, an early childhood educator at the museum who is among those leading the organizing effort. “People have to be pushed pretty far to [organize], because it isn’t a fun thing to do by any means.”

Museum president Dianne Sautter admits she was caught with her guard down, describing the union petition as “a real wake-up call for me.” She hopes employees can still be mollified without resorting to collective bargaining. “We’ve made mistakes, and right now we are concentrating on listening as deeply as we can.” She acknowledges that the latest restructuring announcement “was an upsetting event for some people, and I’m sorry about that.”

But it may be too late to make amends. Ill will apparently runs deep on both sides. Rosanna Mendez, a union advocate who works in the museum’s marketing department, found a note in her mailbox last week that read: “Stupid Bitch. No Union.” After discovering the note, Mendez fired off a memo accusing management of various offenses, including sexual harassment and racial insensitivity. Her note closes: “I will not back down, nor will anyone in support of unionization.”

Greg Kelley, director of organizing for Service Employees International Union Local 46, says the complaints of Children’s Museum workers are increasingly common among employees at cultural institutions in the city. Though this is the union’s first foray into a Chicago museum, Local 46 recently negotiated its first contract for workers at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Kelley says he’s hoping for a strong pro-union vote at the Children’s Museum: “That will enable us to negotiate a strong contract.”

Since the most recent restructuring plan was announced, staff turnover has accelerated. Goodwin says at least 8 of the 18 staff members in the education department have quit in the past two months, many of them with no job to replace the one they left. She says any future contract would have to address promotion opportunities as well as inequities in pay and benefits. “Even though part-time employees supposedly aren’t entitled to benefits, we have discovered that some are getting them and some aren’t,” says Goodwin.

With the union vote now expected to take place as early as mid-August, management is aggressively try-ing to convince staffers that everyone’s interests would best be served by avoiding the union. “We need the flexibility to deal with employees directly without an intermediary,” says board president Phil Harris. The museum is getting pro bono legal advice from two high-powered firms: Jenner & Block and Winston & Strawn, where Harris works. Last week he met with employees. “I wanted to hear what their concerns were and see how we can best respond to them,” he says. “There has been a lot of focus on strategic planning as the museum has grown in recent years, and senior management and the board of directors need to do a better job of involving the staff in that.”

One change Sautter intended to an-nounce this week was the creation of a new position of human resources director. Those duties were previously handled by Lenore Lit-win, whose new title is vice president of admin-istration. That move may have been intended to pacify union activists who had problems with Litwin. Sautter says the new hire will report directly to her, which would presumably provide unhappy staffers more direct access to the top.

Regardless of how the upcoming vote turns out, no one expects the Chicago Children’s Museum to ever be the same. Harris notes, “There will need to be a period of healing.”

Ruth Page on the Move

The Ruth Page Awards are moving uptown. The annual awards ceremony honoring excellence in the local dance community has long been marked by a dinner at a downtown hotel. This year, however, the awards will be presented at the Athenaeum Theatre as part of the Dance Chicago festival. The shift promises to make the awards more of a performance-oriented evening. “We want to draw in more of the dance audience who weren’t interested in attending an awards ceremony,” explains Chicago Dance Coalition executive director Gerard Seguin. A cocktail party will precede the September 27 ceremony. Tickets to the awards and party will cost $100, while tickets to the show and a reception afterward will run $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chicago Children’s Museum publicity shot by Jim Alexander Newberry.