Disclaimer: The following statement does not represent the collective opinion of Info Desk PGH. It only represents the opinion of its founder - the person who named the group & did the vast majority of the work.
Info Desk PGH
Info Desk PGH is a young group of workers at Pittsburgh's museums, libraries and other cultural institutions struggling with an old problem: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Work at cultural institutions is a unique employment case. One of the roles these institutions play in our society is to display and stimulate how we see and define ourselves. And these displays are what the public comes for. They don't come to stroke the egos of the management or to feed the coffers of the already rich; they come to be stimulated by fresh visions and to educate themselves about older ones.
The people who work at these institutions are often artists, writers, musicians - generally creative people seeking employment in a field we care about, in the cultural arena that we are passionate about contributing to in all aspects of our life. Because we're creative people, we're flexible, we're resourceful, and we're often accustomed to interfacing with a wide variety of people. As such, we're perfect for what some of us call "front-line" positions where openness in relation to other people is important.
In short, these cultural workers are part of the group that creates the work that ultimately gets displayed in museums. Unfortunately, museums value the WORK more than they value the worker. Museums are in a peculiar position in relation to their assets. Most places have assets that depreciate through wear and tear over time. It's important to note that if a museum displays a work of art, that work becomes more highly valued because it's received the stamp-of-importance that museums give.
Alas, throughout the history of art, there are all too many examples of the work of artists only being valued after the artist is dead - the artist doesn't benefit but the collectors and the exhibitors of the art do. The now-famous painter Vincent Van Gogh sold very little work in his lifetime and mainly lived in poverty. Within 100 years, his paintings were selling for tens of millions of dollars. Someone made out like a bandit and it wasn't the person who actually created the work. The work is valued, partially for its creativity, partially for its usefulness to investors. The artist doesn't have to live well or even be alive for that usefulness to function.
Info Desk PGH wonders: Is the low pay of many of the artists employed by museums an example of cynical exploitation by art world investors? Why are the directors of museums, who're rarely or never artists themselves, making hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly while the artists they employ are desperately struggling to survive? Info Desk PGH would like to see the value of the cultural worker increase rather than to have only the work that museums display be valued.
Democracies reject aristocracy because aristocracy creates unearned privilege. People 'at court' mistake 'toadier-than-thou' for 'holier-than-thou' and act accordingly. When cultural institutions run as hierarchies similar to aristocratic courts the people who make decisions may just be 'toadier-than-thou' - and like all toadies, they're going to reward the people 'beneath them' only if they're toady in turn.
This type of hierarchy encourages yes-men behavior when what we need is The Yes Men behavior. People stay in their jobs because they don't rock the boat - the result is that the quality-of-life level of the boat just sinks and most of the people within it barely keep their heads above the water - while the people who cause the sinking sit on top of the lower echelon heads in comfort.
What's wrong with this picture?
In the meantime, every measure is taken to cut the wages of the majority. Gallery Attendant, for example, is a position created to replace guards. The logic is that they don't have to have uniforms and can be paid even less. GAs at some museums make minimum wage.
According to "infoplease"'s "Federal Minimum Wage Rates, 19552013", the 2013 minimum wage rate of $7.25 hourly is worth $4.87 in Constant (1996) dollars. In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.60 but the Constant (1996) dollar value of that was $7.21. The 2013 minimum wage buying power is lower than it was in 1956-1985, 1991, 1997-1998, and 2009-2012.
According to a 2013 analysis by Dr. Ann K. Glasmeier of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) called "Living Wage Calculation for Pittsburgh city, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania":
"The living wage shown is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2080 hours per year). The state minimum wage is the same for all individuals, regardless of how many dependents they may have. The poverty rate is typically quoted as gross annual income. We have converted it to an hourly wage for the sake of comparison."
In Glasmeier's accompanying chart, the "poverty wage" for one adult in 2013 is $5.21 and the living wage is $8.29. As the "1 adult" transforms into an adult with dependents, the disparity between the $7.25 minimum wage and the living wage increases and what constitutes poverty wage is actually higher than the minimum wage! From Info Desk PGH's perspective, even Glasmeier's 'living wage' is hopelessly low!
Many low-paid cultural workers are hired as part-time in order to avoid paying us health-care and providing paid vacations, etc. Since part-time employment at low wages is not enough to enable a person to support themselves, workers resort to having multiple jobs, often within the same institution, and on picking up extra hours whenever possible.
Unfortunately, making matters worse is the way these institutions are now trying to avoid paying health care under the new Affordable Health Care Act. This law, abbreviated the ACA, stipulates that all employees working 30 hours or more a week be recognized as full-time and given health care. The Carnegie Museums, for example, are resisting this by requiring, sometimes through trickle-down orders that avoid "paper trails", that all part-time employees now work TWENTY-FIVE hours or less a week and that they only work ONE JOB within the institution.
That then involves our asking for a wage that would make people working 25 hours or less weekly amount to over $11,490 yearly - that is, over the poverty level. If we take Dr. Glasmeier's living wage of $8.29 hourly as a starting point (wch IDP thinks is too low - especially given that the cost-of-living will surpass that quickly), that would make 1,300 (allowed work hours per year) X $8.29 = $10,777 per yr - still under the poverty guideline.
According to one online source based on the Carnegie Museums's 990 tax forms, their Total Revenue for 2011 equalled $57,227,580 & their Total Expenses were $50,371,473. That leaves an almost $7,000,000 profit! If one takes into consideration that the expenses include purchase of assets, a potential calculation of profit is much higher. And, yet, there's always the managerial claim that low-paid employees have to stay low-paid because there isn't enough money to increase their wages. Info Desk PGH says: "BULLSHIT!"
Even if this weren't bullshit, directors within the Carnegie Museums should, presumably, be responsible for the financial well-being of their institutions. That's the justification for paying them so much. So WHY is it that when they claim to not even be able to raise enough money to even pay a 'living wage' it's the lower-echelon employees who have to pay for their incompetence? Especially given that the directors can afford to take a loss and the lower-paid employees can't?! They win (no matter what), we lose. It's Info Desk PGH's opinion that management should take pay-cuts if they can't raise the money, not the already impoverished front-line artist employees!
Think about this: In 2007, according to a March 27, 2007 Washington Post article by Jacqueline Trescott and James V. Grimaldi, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, the banker who took over the world's largest museum complex seven years before, resigned under pressure following revelations regarding his housing allowance and office and travel expenditures.
These expenses included things like Small charging the Smithsonian more than $1.1 million to use his 6,500-square-foot home for official functions. The housing expenses included $273,000 for housekeeping. That gives you a taste of what can hide behind fundraising expenses. The Carnegie's tax report for fundraising expenses (money spent on things like costs for parties thrown for big-spending donors) for 2011 was $3,411,568. Would a closer look at these Carnegie expenses reveal abuses such as those of Secretary Small?!
Info Desk PGH wants to change this. Info Desk PGH wants a more ethical workplace where all employees have at least a living wage, respect, more reliable hours, and a more democratic voice in how the institutions are run. There's no good excuse for doing things like cutting employee hours back to avoid paying them health care under the ACA - cut the BIG wage earners's wages instead until they do their job and raise money for the entirety instead of just for themselves.
If you're a cultural worker who cares about culture and quality of life and has new ideas supporting these cares and you find yourself unable to implement these ideas from the top down in the institutions you work for, why not implement them from the bottom up instead? Info Desk PGH is working to unite all exploited cultural workers for an improved quality of life - especially through realistic living wage as a minimum. That, obviously, is a challenge to the rich-getting-richer and the poor-getting-poorer!
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