The most significant organizing tool of the year was a Google spreadsheet containing thousands of anonymous museum workers’ salaries.
Started in May by a group of mostly anonymous museum professionals inspired by burgeoning salary transparency conversations in the art world, the spreadsheet cataloged not only salaries but benefits such as parental leave and factors such as educational background, race, and gender — an implicit nod to the pay disparity between men and women.
“In our museum and arts workplaces, salary sharing was a completely taboo practice,” the group, known as Art + Museum Transparency, recently wrote for the art publication Walker Reader. “We were nervous enough that we checked online to figure out whether we were doing anything illegal by talking about what we were paid. We weren’t.”
Their willingness to break from the norm resonated: In just two weeks, the spreadsheet had more than 2,500 entries.
And then spreadsheet fever caught on. Philly baristas did it in October, inspiring baristas in a dozen other cities to do the same. So did journalists, ad agency staffers, and Philly’s public interest lawyers.
Yes, the information in the documents is anonymized and largely unverified. But the spreadsheets have still delivered results.
Art + Museum Transparency said it knows of workers who used the data to negotiate raises, as well as “entire museum departments that have sat down and reassessed their pay scales, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.”
In Philadelphia, workers at Fishtown bakery Cake Life said they got a $1 hourly raise — from $9 to $10 an hour — that managers attributed to the barista spreadsheet.
And the spreadsheets have served as an organizing tool: Philly baristas working at coffee shops across the city are meeting to discuss how to improve their working conditions. The Cake Life workers launched a bid to unionize last month.
Beyond the tangible, the spreadsheets — and the quiet resistance in them, the way they break the code of silence around pay — are part of a growing labor consciousness among young people at a time when younger generations have found themselves increasingly disillusioned with capitalism. (Young adults’ overall views of capitalism have dipped to the point where it tied with socialism in popularity, a recent Gallup poll found.)
The documents raise such questions as: Why is it so taboo to talk about what we’re getting paid? And who benefits from the silence?
The spreadsheets have taken a workplace such as a museum or a coffee shop and situated it in the political, urging people to think about the working conditions of those serving lattes or designing exhibitions. It’s a line of inquiry that inevitably leads to: What about your own working conditions?
It’s striking, but not surprising, that these spreadsheets have emerged from rank-and-file workers, instead of from a union or traditional labor advocacy group. The effort tracks with the grassroots movements seen in Philly labor — such as the Starbucks workers organizing without the backing of a traditional union, the rank-and-file educators challenging leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and a new volunteer-run labor group called Philly Workers for Dignity seeking to serve workers whom unions have left behind — and points to blind spots within the labor establishment.
And the phenomenon of the spreadsheets points to the changing identity of the labor movement: Even though most in labor agree that unions are the answer, many workers can’t join a union even if they want to, due in part to aggressive anti-union tactics from employers and what advocates describe as weak labor laws. So organizers have devised alternatives: They stage walkouts. They fight for worker protection laws. And share their salaries.