StoryCorps is an American nonprofit founded in 2003 by David Isay with a mission to preserve and share the stories of people from all backgrounds. Modeled after the oral history projects conducted by the WPA in the 1930’s, the organization places recording booths and facilitators in accessible spaces inviting individuals to engage in a recorded interview process. Among its numerous projects, StoryCorps has permanent recording booths in Chicago, NYC and Atlanta, a mobile booth that travels the U.S. in a retrofitted Airstream, and regular broadcasts on NPR. An archive of the organization’s recordings are housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. StoryCorps has been the recipient of Peabody, TED and MacArthur awards.
In October of 2019, employees of StoryCorps ratified their first contract as members of CWA Local 1180. The road up to that point was long, arduous and involved a significant amount of anti-union campaigning on the part of the employer. Maura Johnson is a member of the Community Training team at StoryCorps who has been with the organization for over five years. This interview was conducted by Claire Bennett via email in January 2020.
How did your career trajectory lead you to StoryCorps and what drew you to this work initially?
I originally became involved with StoryCorps as an intern back in 2015. I had studied documentary film and was specifically interested in community-based documentary projects. StoryCorps had a robust community engagement department and I was excited to be part of this work. I was immediately taken by how program staff were using the StoryCorps model in new and creative ways in order to engage with communities and document local history.
How long have you been with the organization and how would you describe your current role there?
I have been with StoryCorps for over five years now – first as an intern, then as a part- time facilitator and finally in my current role as an associate with the community training program.
I work with a small (but mighty!) team called Community Training. We build partnerships with organizations across the U.S. and help them to embed StoryCorps-style recording programs within their existing services. I plan and lead trainings and workshops with a large variety of partners, including libraries, hospitals, community- based organizations and more. Specifically, I’ve been greatly involved with the Legacy Program, which focuses on training healthcare staff to record and preserve patient stories, and a new initiative called Road to Resilience, which provides young people who are a grieving with an opportunity to share their stories. I also process hundreds of stories from our partners each year to be housed in the StoryCorps archive and shared with the Library of Congress.
What were some of the reasons behind the decision to unionize?
Like many nonprofits, StoryCorps had grown quickly in the past few years and expanded staff and programs. However, wages and benefits for non-managerial staff were not keeping pace with the growth of the organization. There was over a $130K pay gap at the organization and we had employees making as little as $36K in cities such as New York and San Francisco, where the cost of living continues to skyrocket. In the months leading up to our first union meeting, we also experienced some sudden layoffs and lost some long-time and valued colleagues with little or no notice. We felt that the organizations priorities were not in the right place and that management could do more to support lower-level staff.
Can you walk me through the process of unionization? What was the approximate timeline?
Late 2016/Early 2017: Staff members first get in touch with CWA rep to talk about how unionizing works. Small group of staff attend first several meetings — begin to reach out to others on staff to discuss workplace issues such as low wages, high healthcare costs, lack of mental health support, recent layoffs and lack of transparency/communication from management.
Spring 2017: Building connections and working to go public. We discussed main workplace issues and collaborated to draft a mission statement as well as a list of priorities and our shared values as a group. These values were focused on making the work more sustainable in terms of pay and employee support, creating a more equitable workplace that better supports and values workers and emotional labor of this work, increasing transparency and communication between lower-level employees and management.
June 2017: Coming together and going public. Together, we drafted an open letter to management about why we were forming a union. We also asked lower level staff members to sign on — and a majority did. A group of about fifteen staff members presented this letter to StoryCorps CEO in her office
Summer 2017: Over the course of the summer, StoryCorps led a strong anti-union campaign and used various scare tactics to dissuade employees from unionizing. While management could have voluntarily recognized our union, they chose to instead go to a vote. Management held a series of staff meetings about the union and emailed flyers about how the union would weaken the organization. They also chose to call for an NLRB hearing, which meant that unit members had to testify about their roles and work. StoryCorps brought on legal support from Holland & Knight. The specific lawyer at the hearing was very aggressive with his questioning and it felt to employees like we were on trial.
August 2017: Held an official election in late August. On Sept. 13, 2017, the NLRB announced the results of the representation election — StoryCorps workers voted by an 83 percent margin for a union voice.
Fall 2017: Electing bargaining committee, conducting a bargaining survey to set priorities and beginning bargaining. Bargaining: We held strong as a union and had to bargain for over two years. Management continually refused to bring new ideas to the table and we held a number of actions to put pressure on them This included picketing their annual Gala in 2018, staging both a walk-in and a walk-out and writing an open letter to the StoryCorps Board. We finally reached a tentative agreement in October of 2019. The agreement included increased wages, PTO, mental health support and a more affordable/better health care plan. Lowest salaries were increased to $40K and staff saved substantial amount on healthcare.
October 2019: Staff votes to ratify contract on October 25, 2019.5. How would you characterize the reaction of the employer? Not at all in line with their stated values as an organization. Management used many union-busting tactics – from holding forced meetings with staff about how a union would ruin the organization, to calling for a full NLRB hearing and distributing anti-union flyers.
In your opinion, what were the greatest challenges faced during the process?
Staff turnover and management’s continued efforts to stymie our union. Many staff left during the campaign and throughout bargaining and we had to build up support time and time again. Management brought few new ideas to bargaining and often seemed unwilling to collaborate with us to find solutions to workplace issues.
How would you characterize the work environment pre and post-ratification?
Before, it felt like an uphill battle and staff had little power to air their grievances or bring about change. Now we have a contract and tools (shop stewards, a labor management committee) to bring up issues with management. We still have a lot of work to do, but with a contract in place the workplace feels steadier. Throughout this process, we formed close bonds with our colleagues and built trust and strong ties with one another. I feel very connected to my fellow union members and now when workplace issues arise, we lean on each other more for support. It’s also great to be part of the larger union community now – I’ve attended marches and events with my local CWA 1180 and people have stopped me on the street when I’m wearing my red shirt to share their own union story. Union members make up an incredibly rich and supportive community and I’m grateful to be part of that now.
Do you see unionization in the cultural heritage sector to be a growing trend?
Yes, you can see the growing interest among nonprofits and cultural institutions to build stronger workplaces through unionizing. Too often, these organizations have strayed from their initial mission and stated values – and workers are taking it upon themselves to support one another and fight for better working conditions. Whether it’s the Tenement Museum, MoMA or our friends at Brooklyn Academy of Music (who showed up on our picket line to show support) – it’s fantastic to see cultural workers standing up and saying enough is enough. Nonprofit institutions, especially those involved in art and culture, try to make you feel like you should be grateful for your job and not complain about low wages or the lack of stability. It’s been heartening to see how workers are coming together and becoming stronger by unionizing.
Is there any advice you would give to other organizations who might be considering taking steps towards unionizing?
Be patient and build trust and connection with your colleagues first. There are fantastic union organizers out there (and we worked with some amazing reps at CWA 1180) but at the end of the day you’re going to need your colleagues’ support most of all. On the toughest days of our union campaign, when I felt incredibly burnt out, I was grateful for my colleagues and their care and support. We held each other up.
Claire Bennett is a librarian currently based in Toronto, Canada.
Disclaimer: Maura Johnson is a former co-worker of HRA Section Blog editor Hilary Barlow.