by Kathy Creutzburg
Teaching artists are unique individuals because they nurture creativity in others by using their independent artistic practices as grounding. Their role within the workspace has grown and expanded. Hired to enrich the cultural experiences of youth and beyond, teaching artists skillfully create community based artworks that address relevant issues and topics. Fair salaries, benefits, and working conditions empower their professionalism.
The organization where I work, Studio in a School (SIAS), is a place where artists are encouraged to maintain ongoing artistic practices and to apply their sensibilities within workplace residencies. This enables the artist to deliver a program full of expertise in the visual arts. That is why I have invested in my career there and why I found it necessary to organize a union. My voice and the singular voices of my fellow teaching artists were not being recognized in establishing fair workplace conditions and wages. Administrators claim that wages and conditions are open topics, but without a union, any discussion is based solely on the employer’s terms. An employer can change those terms at any time, without the consent of the artist who has no legal recourse.
During the pandemic, my colleague Victoria Calabro and I began going to panel discussions on Zoom to learn about union organizing within the arts community. I had spent considerable energy reaching out to the UFT (United Federation of Teachers). Then we met Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110 UAW, through an NYC Museum Educators Roundtable forum in 2020. She projected power through a Zoom window with her pragmatic and straightforward style. I asked in an email afterwards if she would organize the SIAS artists, and she said yes. I was thrilled.
Then the real work began. We reached out to our colleagues and discovered that, during the pandemic, some artists were laid off with impersonal form letters.
A feeling of isolation continued as one school year ran into the next. At our union meetings on Zoom, we shared professional ideas, the details of our lives and how we felt. As our union evolved, some colleagues embraced it wholeheartedly, while others were reticent or fearful of retaliation. A committed group of artists developed an organizing committee and our outreach grew more sophisticated. We filed election paperwork with the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and on March 9, 2021, we stood collectively, ready to be heard.
Our organizational management saw unionization as a threat. I found this surprising since the primary function of the organization is to send teaching artists out into the field. Our work and ideas fulfill its objective.
The mission to foster “the creative and intellectual development of New York City youth through quality visual arts programs” was being filtered through a top-down management strategy based upon our creative and innovative work. We were horrified when they hired Jason Greer Consulting, an unscrupulous union busting firm. Greer’s corporate identity was hidden from us then, but it was later revealed by a journalist from The Intercept inquiring about Greer’s tactics to defeat unions. We attended captive anti-union meetings weekly on Zoom, facilitated by Chastity, one of Greer’s employees, who introduced herself as an “educator.”
For a month, we were fed misinformation. Her presentation included a clipart image of a judge’s gavel, with “DUES” written in boldface lettering. She characterized our nearly one hundred member union as an outside entity, and told more lies meant to subdue our spirit. Throughout, she coolly argued that we should vote against our union. The meetings sowed confusion among some artists but most were furious. Separately, a SIAS board member wrote a divisive editorial statement in the Brooklyn Rail that was quickly rescinded. After previously attending many inspirational SIAS workshops, these captive sessions felt like a profound form of harassment.
We won our election 76 to 16. The artists posted a fact-check series to counteract disinformation on SIAS Union Instagram. Greer Consulting got paid handsomely.
Our union members voted in a negotiating committee, and we bargained with our administrators over workplace rights and salaries. The objective was to cultivate a democratic culture within the SIAS organization. SIAS management hired a “union avoidance” lawyer. As we were finalizing our contracts, we found that some of the previously settled language was missing or distorted in the document we received. Their lawyer demanded we finish the bargaining process on a tight deadline.
As I continue working for Studio in a School, I have forgiven them for posturing in this way. But I will not forget. I maintain my outrage. We fought hard to codify our rights in the workplace, negotiating for a year. The process required collective perseverance and attentiveness. Our contract offers an enforceable starting point. Our chorus of voices finally have a concrete legal document which was ratified on March 14, 2022.