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Mystic -About 15 Mystic Seaport employees gathered Tuesday night in the kitchen of a Pawcatuck home to discuss forming a union at the maritime museum.
In the adjacent living room, three employees and an organizer from AFT Connecticut, discussed the working conditions that led them to begin unionization efforts last year.
They said one of the driving forces behind the effort was the feeling that management does not listen to their suggestions or work with them to meet the museum's mission. They said the museum had laid off employees, cut benefits, awarded occasional but small raises, increased insurance premiums and enacted a six-week closure this winter without asking employees for suggestions or alternatives.
"There's a lot of smart, talented people here who have suggested alternatives to laying off people, but they have not had a voice," said Sarah Spencer, who has worked in the communications department for 22 years. "People love this museum. They understand you're not going to make a lot of money or get rich here, but they believe in the stated mission of the museum, and we're not meeting that mission."
Dean Seder, who has worked in the shipyard for 37 years, said employees are upset by what they see as a decline in the museum's offerings and in its commitment to history.
He said that, at a mandatory staff meeting this week, museum officials outlined the union process and took question from employees.
"I believe they heard us, but I don't believe they are listening to us," he said.
"We're voiceless now," said Liz Kading, who has worked in the interpretation department for six years. "This union will give us a voice."
At her staff meeting, Kading said, the sentiment she heard from the museum was, "We can work this out without a third party."
She said the people in her department - where she started at $7.25 an hour - are among the lowest paid. With the closure this winter, she said, some of her fellow employees had to decide between buying medication and food and paying rent. She said the Seaport did not make the employees aware they were eligible for unemployment.
Employees are now signing union cards, which will be delivered to the National Labor Relations Board - 30 percent must sign to force a vote to create a union. The board would then schedule a vote.
All this could occur within the next few weeks. If a majority of the 200 Seaport employees vote to form a union, one would be created and would begin negotiations with management.
Asked whether they were worried that a union could cause additional financial strain on the museum, whose attendance has dipped over the past few decades, Seder acknowledged that was a big concern.
"We don't want to hurt the museum in any way," he said.