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Area restaurants taking a hit as MASS MoCA strike enters its second week

Union employees at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary art or MASS MoCA continue to walk a seven day a week picket line in North Adams., Mass.

After several months of contract negotiations, workers voted to strike as of March 6, in protest over a minimum hourly wage offer from the museum. Entry level retail clerks, janitors and museum attendants, about 60 % of the workforce, currently earn $16.25 an hour

The United Auto Workers Union, which represents 120 employees, is asking for $18.25 an hour. The museum is offering a dollar less.

MASS MoCA made its last offer to the union in late February, according to Jen Falk, a museum spokesperson. The museum also offered a 3.5% across-the-board salary increase she said in an email.

"We are extremely disappointed that the United Auto Workers union has decided to reject our wage increase offer by taking action against MASS MoCA in the form of an indefinite strike,” Kristy Edmunds, Director of MASS MoCA, said in a statement. "At this post-pandemic juncture, we are building a future of financial resilience — including significant investments in our people — and cannot agree to contract terms that will diminish our ability to do so holistically.”

The museum is open and a request to 'honk for a fair wage'

The two sides have yet to meet since before the strike began, each saying the other had not reached out.

Every day since last Wednesday about a dozen people have been picketing, urging drivers to honk for better wages. This takes place in front of MASS MoCA, while inside managers run the museum with limited staff.

On a below freezing day this week, UAW organizer Chelsea Farrell said one reason workers voted to go on strike is because they feel disrespected by the museum.

"It's snowing now, it's cold, it's windy," Farrell said, "and you know, management is letting their workers stand out here. I think that speaks volumes."

Standing near a giant inflatable rat known as "Scabby" Joey Rainone said as a master production electrician at the museum, he is fortunate enough to be higher up on the pay scale than minimum wage.

He is out picketing because he believes in a fair wage for all museum employees.

"The people we're negotiating with are human beings. They are people that are emotionally invested in the institution [like we are]," Rainone said. "I just don't necessarily think that they are in touch with people that are in lower tax brackets than them. I don't think they understand the reality of living in a town that is rapidly gentrifying because of the museum, and then like losing my apartment because they're turning it into an Airbnb."

MASS MoCA's Falk said in an email, the museum hopes to return to the bargaining table in the near future.

Restaurants see significant loss of customers

MASS MoCA is in the former location of Sprague Electric, a sprawling campus with multiple buildings. A brewery and several eateries are among those who rent space from the museum.

Xavier Jones owner of Bigg Daddy's Philly Steak House said he's had a significant drop in customers, because of the strike.

People who live or work in North Adams don't want to cross a daily picket line, Jones said.

Just a week before the strike began, on social media Jones posted that he was hiring, looking for chefs to prepare his signature Philly Cheesesteak and chicken wings.

On Monday, he said so few customers have placed orders since the strike began, he's had to cut staff, and he is concerned he'll have to cut back even more.

"I am annoyed that I am stuck in a crossfire," Jones said. "I am annoyed that I am losing business because of other people's business."

Bigg Daddy's faces a busy street and is right on the edge of the museum's property.

When the take-out shop opened in this location last March, the Berkshire Eagle reportedit would be be the first Black-owned restaurant in MASS MoCA’s history.

Making a choice, staff or supplies

On the first floor inside the museum is Lickety Split, a family run restaurant, located at the museum since MASS MoCA first opened, said Danielle Ralys, who was ten-years-old at the time.

Because of a significant drop in customers, one week into the strike, Ralys said her family is choosing to pay staff, over ordering some needed supplies.

"I know today we're down probably more than 50%," Ralys said earlier this week. Very few people came by she said and the restaurant also had no catered events.

"Yes, we are in a very peculiar position," Ralys said, being inside the museum, but she said a damaging decrease in business because of the strike is happening beyond Lickety Split.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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