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July 8, 2021

EcoTarium employees vote to unionize, despite museum opposition

Photo | Courtesy of the EcoTarium The EcoTarium in Worcester

Worcester science museum The EcoTarium announced on Thursday its workers have voted to join the union AFSCME Council 93, over the objections of the museum board.

"We don't think it is the right move for the museum, but we respect the employees' decision and will be thoughtful and professional in negotiations moving forward," said Sherri Pitcher, chair of the EcoTarium's all-volunteer board, in a phone interview with WBJ. "We do have a very, very talented and committed staff, and I'm very grateful so many have rejoined the EcoTarium following everything we went through in the pandemic."

The union vote, which was tabulated Wednesday after a three-week mail-in vote, comes a year after EcoTarium staff sent an anonymous letter in July 2020 to the board, asking to remove then-CEO and President Lucy Hale from her position. They expressed concerns about budget cuts, staff turnover and alleged mismanagement.

"We have voted for a voice in how our museum is run and how employees are treated," said Catrina Vear, EcoTarium employee, in the museum's press release Thursday. "I am proud that my teammates and I worked so hard to secure this place at the table, and we hope this will afford us safety and respect as we continue to give our very best to this museum and to the community we love. We are hopeful that the board and leadership will collaborate with staff in good faith, and realize that investing in the staff helps ensure that we carry out our mission fairly and sustainably for years to come."

The vote also comes after a year in which the 45-acre museum was forced to close and lay off most of its staff due to the coronavirus pandemic. The museum began rehiring staff earlier this year, opened its outdoor exhibits in April and plans to open its indoor exhibits on Friday. The museum also sold its 323-acre Rutland camp for $400,000 in March.

Hale resigned from her position as CEO on May 28, and she was replaced by Kerry Castorano, the vice president of institutional advancement, who served as the museum's acting leader until Michael Halpern took over as interim CEO and president on June 23. Halpern will stay in the interim role while the board conducts a nationwide search for a permanent replacement, Pitcher said.

Founded in 1825, the EcoTarium employs about 30 people, Pitcher said on Thursday, with a handful of new hires being made. Only non-management employees will join the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. While the museum board didn't support the unionization, it didn't campaign against the vote either. The exact results of the vote weren't disclosed, but the museum said it was overwhelmingly in favor of unionization.

The announcement didn't provide a timeline for when the museum would develop and finalize a contract with the unionized employees.

The museum in its statement Thursday said it hopes employees will feel more protected in the future and the board will work with the union to help improve this process.

“Although it was not the outcome we were hoping for, the EcoTarium board and leadership team is committed to working with the staff and union to build a plan for a stable and successful future of our nearly 200-year-old institution. The hard-working staff is what makes this museum a truly remarkable place,” said Pitcher, in the statement.

Due to its closure from the coronavirus, the museum lost substantial revenue last year and into this year, Pitcher said. The EcoTarium has applied for about $1 million in federal relief from the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program from the U.S. Small Business Administration, and Pitcher expects the museum to get a decision on that application in the immediate near future.

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