By STEPHEN SINGER= ^AP Business Writer=
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Cost-cutting by Mystic Seaport to survive the Great Recession has paid off as one of Connecticut’s oldest tourist attractions has turned a profit with a modest increase in visitors. But, getting there may come at a price.
On Aug. 17, more than 200 workers who are demanding more of a say in how the museum is run will vote on whether to establish a union.
“We want management to see us as partners,” said Mike Bartles, an interpreter of historic artifacts at the Seaport. “We need to be able to keep skilled workers.”
Management of the Seaport, which celebrates New England’s maritime past, is fighting the union drive by AFT Connecticut, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
“We recognize there is room for improvement, but we don’t think a union will help the workers,” Seaport spokesman Dan McFadden said. “We think our employees would be better off without paying union dues and work better directly with the museum rather than a third party.”
McFadden said Mystic Seaport cut its budget by $3 million, partly through a 10 percent staff cut in two rounds of layoffs in 2008 and 2009, leaving the number of employees to about 350, including 100 supervisors. It also closed for six weeks in the winter.
The number of paid visitors is up 2 percent this year over 2011, he said. The Seaport operates on a $20 million budget.
“I think we’re at the tail end of a very difficult recession and the museum did have to make some very hard staffing decisions,” McFadden said. “We did turn the corner, but getting around that corner was a heavy burden on employees.”
Visitors to Mystic Seaport, which was founded in 1929, may tour exhibits, a recreated 19th century coastal village and a shipyard where craftsmen restore schooners and other boats. The Seaport and nearby Mystic Aquarium are the “iconic centers of the tourism industry” in southeastern Connecticut, said Edward Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District.
Research by state tourism officials says Mystic is the most well-recognized area in Connecticut, he said.
“When people think of Connecticut, they think of Mystic first,” Dombroskas said.
Mystic Seaport, which is nonprofit, worries about a possible union victory because it would require negotiations for a contract. McFadden said the Seaport would have to spend money for lawyers and lose productivity among workers who participate in contract talks.
Bartles said workers do not believe sacrifice has been shared. The average salary for historic interpreters, he said, is between $12,000 and $14,000 annually. Although workers have received steady pay raises of 2 percent, being laid off for six weeks was a burden that he said was not borne by office staff.
Sara Leone, who works at the Seaport’s docks, said the culture of Mystic Seaport has changed over the years, from a “positive community of people” to a workplace where executives do not listen to workers’ complaints or suggestions.
“It’s not that we don’t have a voice,” she said. “We have a voice, but no one is listening on the other end.”
The fight is also about money and benefits, she said. Leone, who has worked at the Seaport for 16 of the last 25 years, taking a break to study at Brown University, said she receives no sick days or health benefits because she is classified as a seasonal employee.
“The union will stop that absolute travesty, that absurdity,” she said.
AFT-Connecticut filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Mystic Seaport of banning solicitation by union supporters and doing so in a way that discriminates against union backers. The NLRB dismissed the charges, but with the condition that it will close the case in six months only if Mystic Seaport does not again impose the policies.
Mystic Seaport is working hard to block the union, running “informational sessions” to make sure employees “are educated and informed about the union,” McFadden said.
With unions claiming less than 13 percent of workers at museums, art galleries and historic sites, according to federal statistics, the Seaport hopes to stay out of that small fraternity.
“We might be breaking new ground here,” McFadden said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)