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Unionizing to keep the Experimental Station community alive

Workers at the pioneering south side space organize against unfair labor practices.

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Kahari Black, a long time member of the Experimental Station community, helping a young skater at the Experimental Station Union May Day event. - DAVON CLARK
  • Davon Clark
  • Kahari Black, a long time member of the Experimental Station community, helping a young skater at the Experimental Station Union May Day event.

It's no secret that Experimental Station (ES) is unique. The Woodlawn space has various tenants but it isn't just art-focused. It’s a museum, it’s a coffee shop, it’s a farmer’s market. When explaining the space to folks who don't live in the area, it can sound like a utopia of sorts, a place where people can create and work alongside one another, a central nervous center of community-focused people working within their neighborhood on projects they are passionate about. Without the employees at ES, there would be no space like the one that exists.

But those passions have become shrouded in moments of anti-Blackness, sexual harassment, the inability to enact concrete policies, and the disregard for tenants and their grievances. In January, those very Experimental Station workers decided to unionize. The arts hub, a staple for more than 20 years, became a place where their grievances went unanswered and where employees didn't feel safe, according to ES staff. In March, organizers addressed a letter to executive director Connie Spreen and board president Martin Friedman to recognize the union. Their laundry list of requests asks for a "safe and transparent workplace where staff are empowered to address systemic issues of white supremacy and sexism."

As of press time, the board of directors has not recognized the union. In a letter to organizers, the board wrote, "We are bound to follow the legal steps that are required that protect our employees and our organization alike and we want to make sure that all employees have the opportunity to decide for themselves by following the standard democratic process for organizing that is provided by the National Labor Relations Board." Since the ES workers organized, the surrounding community and alderpeople have reached out with support for the staffers.

"I’m a big supporter of Experimental Station. I’m a big believer in organized labor," says Illinois Senator Robert Peters. "For years, Experimental Station has been at the intersection of innovation and culture in our community, and the only way for that progress to continue—and to continue in the most inclusive and equitable way possible—is through a union."

"Arts workers are often expected to make personal and financial sacrifices for the honor of working in a prestigious arts institution,” said Athena Christa, a member of the MoMA Local 2110's bargaining committee, in a Hyperallergic interview. “It’s true that we are privileged to have the opportunity to do work we are passionate about, but that often comes with a price paid in under-compensated (and sometimes uncompensated) labor.” While creative arts-based organizing may sound new, the first efforts for artists to unionize took place in 1933 when a short-lived group of 25 New York artists who worked at the Emergency Work Bureau published a manifesto that demanded sponsorships for art projects and economic aid. The union influenced the Public Works of Art Project and the Federal Art Project and changed the arts in America forever.

Since then, the 1969 Art Workers Coalition (technically not a union but artists who fought for policy changes) organized at the New Museum, and Guggenheim employees unionized in 2019. Arts unions like these have all paved a path for creative spaces seeking fair labor conditions. Still, Experimental Station is a unique case.

In the 80s, the original Experimental Station building was the largest and oldest nonprofit recycler. Dan Peterman, an artist who works with recycled objects, bought the building with the initial goal to create an artist-run co-sharing studio space. The first project to open was Blackstone Bicycle Works (BBW) in 1994, which is still there today. The retail bike shop engages with Chicago youth in underserved neighborhoods and strives to teach them leadership, problem-solving, and the mechanics of cycling. In 2001, a devastating fire burned down most of the building, though no one was hurt). The city wanted to take the land, but successful sleep-outs held by community members led to a campaign to rebuild and reconstruct the building.

In 2002, Peterman and Connie Spreen opened the Experimental Station at 6100 S. Blackstone on the south side. Today it’s a hub for artists, coffee drinkers, bicyclists, veggie lovers, and everyone in between. Link Up Illinois, where folks can double the value of Link purchases, is a tenant of the building, as well as The Hyde Park Herald, South Side Weekly, Invisible Institute, Build Coffee, 61st St. Farmers Market, and Civic Projects. It's been a place to view art exhibitions and live music, it's a place to have a picnic with friends.

ES is named after a 1901 speech by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, where he imagined a modern art and craft shop, something he called the "experimental station," that would represent the "pulsating web of the machine," where the "best young scientific blood could mingle with the best and truest artistic inspiration."

Chloe Kelly, with Mural Moves, ollieing in front of the Experimental Station during the bike and skate rodeo at the Experimental Station Union May Day Community event. - DAVON CLARK
  • Davon Clark
  • Chloe Kelly, with Mural Moves, ollieing in front of the Experimental Station during the bike and skate rodeo at the Experimental Station Union May Day Community event.

ES board members, who claim to strive to be forward-thinking, read aloud their letter of response to union organizers over a Zoom call on March 25 in which they did not acknowledge the union. Under the PROAct, a bill that has not yet passed but is supported by President Joe Biden, this would be illegal as a captive audience meeting, with anti-union talking points and mandatory attendance. After the meeting, the board closed off any form of communication with organizers.

When contacted, cofounder and executive director Connie Spreen said, "We truly appreciate the devotion of our employees to Experimental Station and respect their right to explore unionization. We are asking for the democratic process for organizing to be followed to ensure that all employees have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want a union. We will respect the outcome of that democratic process."

ES communications associate J. Michael Eugenio says that on March 13, 2020, when museums, universities, classes, and churches began to close, ES had an indoor farmer's market the next day. Staff were concerned about how this would be done safely. One anonymous ES employee says, "Connie was exacerbated by the idea and didn’t want to talk through potential safety plans." Eventually, according to the employee, she stormed out of the building when employees brought up concerns. "Staff then put together a safety plan for how to do the market as safely as could be, without support from Connie in developing this protocol. That next week Chicago had a stay-at-home order." Eugenio says the outbursts were not uncommon.

Friedman says on behalf of ES that 2020 was a "year of renewed purpose." During the pandemic, he explains that ES learned that they "must be prepared to pivot and adapt when faced with the unexpected." He says that ES was closed to the public in compliance with the stay-at-home order and that staff worked entirely from home. "Operating our bike shop in compliance with the stay-at-home order was a particular challenge. The only staff allowed in the building were three bike mechanics," he says.

He goes on to explain the farmer's market has adapted its layout and procedures to create a safe space during the pandemic with updated protocols that include mask requirements, capacity cut-offs, and the division of entrance and exit lanes.

A former employee of the 61st Street Farmers Market, who asked to remain anonymous, says that an accusation of sexual harassment among vendors was brushed off by leadership as an impossibility. Because the ES employee handbook lacked proper guidance and verbiage for such a situation, the manager of the market drafted a sexual harassment policy and an internal procedures grievance document to show leadership in an attempt to ensure safety is a priority in the future. "Leadership did not encourage or assist in the development of this much-needed policy, nor did they follow the protocol," explains the former employee, who ultimately had her own complaint about sexual harassment in the summer of 2020. When she came forward to address her experience, as well as the inability for leadership to follow protocol, she was dismissed. She was later told her relationship with ES was "no longer tenable" and that she had become "less committed, and less friendly."

A former market vendor says they also experienced sexual harassment at the farmer's market. "The comments were opportunistic and nasty, the kind that would have been shrugged off in most other workplaces I've been a part of," but the market manager addressed it at the time as a serious issue. As a result, "the market has largely remained the wonderfully special place it is to me. But there seemed to be little concern expressed by ES management regarding that incident or, for that matter, appreciation for or investment in the sexual harassment policy."

"It's hard now reflecting on this incident and hearing from other members of the wider ES community not to see that imbalance as just one of many reasons why ES staff's drive to unionize, to create safer, more protected spaces for themselves and the many who belong to the Experimental Station community, is so important and so overdue," they explain.

Friedman responded to allegations of sexual harassment by saying, "Every one of us at Experimental Station takes sexual harassment seriously. In addition to providing employee training, we have protocols in place to report such instances, and we apply appropriate consequences to those displaying improper behavior. We have received a limited number of reports of sexual harassment at the farmers market. These incidents were investigated, and we took the appropriate remedial action."

Organizers urge everyone to continue to visit the bike shop, farmer's market, and to support the folks who work at Experimental Station. The people I spoke to said they care about it and that's why unionizing is necessary.

Blackstone Bicycle Works is a linchpin in the Woodlawn community, where regional racing events, participation in the Bud Billiken Parade, and other festivals are a part of annual programming. But the shop has a history of folks leaving over frustrations and discrimination. Over the years, ES has lost several employees—and since 2020, at least ten have left—due to growing frustrations.

DJ Fish, Blackstone Bicycle Works youth and services coordinator, left ES in April 2021 after he says he was verbally promised a promotion and title change that was revoked. Since Fish's departure, only one employee remains at BBW. When asked about the union-busting language used by ES board of directors, Fish says the language is "disgusting, reprehensible, and dripping with hypocrisy." Nevertheless, he said he wasn’t surprised, even with two board members in unions. "The things they are fighting for would have easily prevented so many of the issues I faced on a daily basis," says Fish, who joined BBW in 2017, about the union. "In my four years so much had already occured, that despite my confidence that the union would provide the protections and security I needed, I felt my only option was to leave expediently."

"I dealt with mismanagement at ES on a weekly if not daily basis," says Fish. "There are so many different examples of mismanagement stemming from indifference and inaction from the executive director that one would begin to think it was a management strategy."

Fish recognized leadership's lack of background checking folks who come into contact with the youth at BBW. In one incident, Fish and another employee recognized a former artist-in-residence, who they later discovered had not been background checked, interacting with folks at ES. “Until that point the directors had set no boundaries for when the artist could be in the space, knowing full well that youth would be in shared building spaces (kitchen, bathrooms, hallways, mezzanine) during most afternoons," Fish says. When asked about background checks at ES, the board president says, "We care deeply about the youth who participate in our programs and ensure that they are safe and well-supervised while in our care. All prospective Experimental Station tenants and artists on-site are vetted by the board." He continues, "Through the application process and in-depth conversations, we strive to ensure that we are well-informed about the people we are bringing into our community."

Fish also says, "I also have documented a consistent failure to address disability accommodations for students and staff." The board president says that, "Adding an elevator is included in our plans for the near future."

Another Blackstone youth alumni, who asks to remain anonymous, explains that they dealt with problems at the shop for more than five years. They said that the grievances and opinions of bike shop employees were ignored. "The shop no longer felt like the community bike shop that it once had at first. The shop was more strict, not allowing people to hang around as they used to," they said. BBW is known for its efforts working with kids from the surrounding area, teaching them bike mechanics and providing a space for socializing and connection. The youth program is free and open to any student from eight years old to high school seniors. But ultimately, the shop has changed. "You had to do more work; a place where you came to hang and see your friends had turned to a non-paying job."

The former employee also explains that folks at ES never communicated with or knew the board personally until the union was formed, "and Connie did not listen to our complaints and rebuttals." Veteran Blackstone regulars at the bike shop suddenly declined to participate in recent years. Between October and January, things got worse for bike shop employees, according to Fish.

Decisions at the shop don't include employees, "and when they rebutted against them, they basically ignored them." Items were ordered late and shop employees would bear the brunt of angry customers whose bike servicing wasn't completed in time—even though they weren't given the proper tools to finish the task.

A community member grilling wings at the Experimental Station Union May Day Community event. - DAVON CLARK
  • Davon Clark
  • A community member grilling wings at the Experimental Station Union May Day Community event.

Surrounding neighbors and community members are also flocking to support the union. On the ES union's website, a Build Coffee representative writes that the union "represents a renewed commitment to this building and the projects to come as we recover and reimagine." The curators of Gather, a series at the Comfort Station in Logan Square, recently wrote a letter of support stating that the hub inspires their own programming with experimental sound and performance. "The unionization of arts and cultural workers is absolutely essential to maintaining this cultural ecology," they write.

ES's model of "mutualism" is a "symbiosis of living together," where they encourage occupants and participants to recognize the benefit of creating together. Build Coffee, South Side Weekly, and the Invisible Institute wrote a letter of support of the union, saying that as tenants, they were inspired and drawn to the hub's initial "commitment to alternative infrastructure," and that they believed that with so many tenants under one roof, they would become "more responsive, innovative, and rooted in community," like Frank Lloyd Wright’s original vision. "Where else could three journalism outlets, a bike shop, a farmers market, and a café exist in such fluid collaboration?" they wrote.

Despite the appearance of a perfect model, staff are struggling to connect the dots. "The efforts to unionize are the best decision for tenants and staff because the tenants and the staff are Experimental Station," Fish says. "How can an organization profess 'mutualism' as a value and fail to recognize the mutual efforts of staff? When someone has a problem or an issue that requires the resources of ES do they go to the board? To Connie? No, they go to the individuals that operate programs, that distribute resources, and that do the work."

Spreen explains, "Even though we are small, we are proud of the impact that Experimental Station—with the many contributions of our employees—has been able to have in our community and beyond."

On the petition page of the ES union, a person writes, "Because I love the Experimental Station and want it to flourish going forward—and that means having a union!” Another supporter writes, "Every worker should have the right to collectively bargain to improve their working situation, period.” And for ES tenants, basic labor conditions, dismantling white supremacy, and addressing sexual assault allegations are priorities in their demands.

How do they hope to enact these changes with a union? Organizers say, "We think that stronger input from Experimental Station's staff, tenants, participants, partners, and neighbors regarding organizational decisions will not only ensure greater staff retention and organizational longevity but is necessary to the viability of Experimental Station as a project." They continue, "Right now, we’re losing talented people who have strong ties to our communities. Our programs are suffering. That’s a big loss for the organization, program participants, and the broader community." As they say in their letter to the board, "The programs—that each and every one of us love and want to see thrive—can only stand to benefit from a union."   v

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