For over a year, my coworkers and I at Anthology Film Archives, a non-profit cultural institution in New York City, have been struggling to secure unionization and ratify a first contract. As a member of Socialist Alternative who has been part of this effort, I will provide an overview of our struggle so far, with the intent of inspiring any workers developing organizing strategies for collective change in their own workplaces. I will detail the barriers put up by management in the process and how a fighting union can remain strong in the face of union-busting attacks.
Challenging the Dictatorship of the Boss
Starting in the winter of 2020, after initial planning conversations, members of our workplace engaged in a series of one-on-one conversations about unionization, and the ways in which collective action would be necessary to address the issues present at Anthology. The primary issue is stagnant wages, a problem which individuals internally had been trying to resolve for years in different ways. Members of the staff requesting salary increases from management, either for themselves or for broader portions of the workplace, were met with either outright rejection or a series of endless “we’ll get back to you” delays. The strength of a union is necessary to overcome this kind of institutional intransigence. Management may be able to dismiss individuals, but a united workforce can prove the absolute necessity of immediate change.
Building a Union Campaign
By February, 100% of our staff had signed union cards with the affirmation to join UAW Local 2110, joining workers from other non-profit movie theaters and museums like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Museum of Modern Art, and Film at Lincoln Center. We submitted a request for voluntary recognition. Upon learning of our organizing efforts, our Board of Trustees began their campaign of union busting. The first tactic utilized was delay. Our voluntary recognition request was simply met without a concrete answer, a position held for weeks. After internal debates about what to do next, we set a deadline for the board to answer our request. If we hadn’t heard by the date set, we would petition the NLRB directly for a union election, a procedure which would cost the institution money and time. Since the claim is always that the budget is too slim to provide materially for our workforce, this tactic puts to them a simple decision: will you spend money supporting the workers who keep Anthology open, or will you spend the money on lawyers’ fees and election fees?
They chose the latter, flatly rejected our request for voluntary recognition, and used a rhetoric often heard in non-profit workspaces. Non-profits often speak of their radical, world-changing ambitions, their desire to uplift communities, to be a counter-current to dominant ideologies, but when the bosses are pushed they respond with a similar line: “We love unions, just not here.” How peculiar! Many non-profits lean on their mission to keep wages low and hours long. They pitch to employees that the social outcomes of their project outweigh the personal and economic sacrifices pushed onto the workers. With unions, we can prove that this is a false dichotomy. We can win better working conditions that provide greater sustainability and less precarious living conditions for the people who actually make these missions possible. And in kind, our work becomes more manageable, our community stronger and personal lives more enriching. “A labor of love” is still labor!
With an election date set, management escalated their tactics, attempting to disenfranchise members of our workplace by challenging their eligibility in the upcoming vote. While this sowed some confusion about the makeup of our eventual bargaining unit, we maintained our position on the original definition of eligibility and spoke amongst ourselves about why management takes these adversarial positions. Separating elements of the workplace into union & non-union in seemingly equitable roles can be leaned on in the future to cause friction and weaken the unit’s strength in the long term. We remained committed to our campaign, and on July 9, 2021, Anthology Film Archives won their union vote with a unanimous “Yes” count. We formed our bargaining committee and prepared for the negotiations ahead.
The Struggle for a First Contract
Once we received our first counter-proposal, the next salvo of union busting tactics was unveiled. Management came out with a deeply anti-worker stance, asking for an open shop (where union membership would be “optional” for future employees), stripping “just cause” protections, and having weak to nonexistent grievance procedures, which would significantly weaken the ability of our membership to ensure our contract was being enforced after ratification. Additionally, they remained completely silent on economic proposals regarding wages and benefits. The message was clear. Management did not want our union to exist and they would be working hard to produce a weak, ineffectual contract that would prop up the existing status-quo. We made our position very clear: we would never accept an “open shop” clause and neither would we accept their conservative positions elsewhere in the contract. This open shop question was still unsettled months into negotiations, which leads into the present moment. After weeks of internal discussion, planning and decision making, we decided to escalate our tactics further, engaging in a one-day strike on March 31st, 2022.
We rallied support from our community: frequent moviegoers and supporters of our programming, past employees, members of 2110 and other UAW locals, radical cultural groups like Cine Móvil NYC and The Illuminator who would lend artistic talents, friends and family, the film press, and political organizations in New York City like DSA. Anthology Film Archives has been a vital tentpole of the independent filmmaking community of NYC for over 50 years, and the tremendous support on the 31st gives us the strength to keep building on the mission of our archive and programming alongside our fight for better working conditions. Members of Socialist Alternative NYC provided material support at the strike line, marching with the workers and leafleting to passers-by to engage the community in our ongoing labor struggle. Our union highlighted three main demands: no open shop, better wages, and robust workplace protections. The public strength rallied by our union was astounding, with well over a hundred people joining us at various points during our evening of action. Remote supporters who could not attend have been sending letters to management lending support to the workers and demanding they relent from their union busting stance.
Building Workers’ Power
The result has been deeply energizing, bringing newfound strength to our position at the negotiating table and encouraging our union membership to begin planning more events to further grow solidarity in the coming weeks. The Bargaining Committee will fight at the table while our community joins us in the fight on the street. From here, we will also build our strength in other ways. The contract should be seen only as the first step, not the final victory. We should continue to engage the community and use public events as opportunities to meet with workers from similar, non-union workplaces and develop organizing strategies. We must link our individual struggle to the wider struggle of the working class in NYC. Our union must lend material support for other labor struggles, from other non-profit cultural centers to larger campaigns like Starbucks and Amazon JFK8 . We must cultivate militant labor leaders from these struggles who can push back against the old business-union bureaucracy at the local and national levels. We must also merge political education with labor struggle and point the way towards the development of an independent, working class political party that can direct the energy of a mass labor movement. Contract battles like the one ongoing at Anthology Film Archives can be concrete examples for the strength of collective action by the working class. Such activities cannot be seen as individual battles of circumstance, but part of a broader class struggle developing in the United States in a moment of continual crises of capitalism, between the ongoing pandemic, out of control inflationary erosion of wages, and imperialist escalation abroad. All workers must organize themselves to better their conditions, and join a broader movement of international solidarity to fight back against capitalist exploitation around the globe.