Overwork Alleged at Plimoth Plantation


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In some ways, says Dawn Butkowsky, an interpreter and 25-year employee of the plantation [Plimoth Plantation site reconstruction], the museum has used employees’ love for the museum against them.

“It’s almost like an abusive relationship, because they know that you love it, because they know that you’re willing to give your all to the place for very little money,” she says. “Management has taken advantage of that.”

Approaching American Thanksgiving seems an opportune time to focus on Plimoth Plantation’s interpretation of the early Indigenous peaceable contact with settlers that has resulted in the commemorative celebration of thanksgiving (see Arnett 2018).

However, the “overwork” [defined as to work too hard, too much, or too long; work to excess] expected of interpreters who love what they do at this site remains highly problematic.

Is Plimoth Planation interpreter Dawn Butkowsky’s term “abusive” cited above too harsh a notion here? Not according to Dr. David Posen, author of the book Is Work Killing You?

M.D. Posen has experience extending over more than a quarter century of treating stressed out workers. He presents compelling evidence that employers are the primary source of the pressures to overwork—& this to the point of “abuse.” What results is not only the loss of productivity & effectiveness, but stress & resulting physical & mental ill-health among employees overwhelmed by work intensification (Posen 2013: 5, 49, 225-87, 321 passim; cf. Higgins et al. 2007: 160; & Bunting 2004: xxv passim).

In the case at hand, Dugan Arnett (2018) reports one aspect of the cause of overwork at Plimoth Plantation in a response from a previous visitor interviewed.

. . . a teacher from Scituate, found the village “unrecognizable” from the version she remembers from her own childhood voyages to the site. At one point, she says, she counted just four Pilgrims working in the 17th-century village — well below totals from years past [“compared with as many as 18 to 20 in years past” (Arnette 2018)].

The background of this labour dispute is:

. . . [an] aftermath of a bitter movement to unionize, some plantation workers — mainly the actors who assume 17th-century personas and inhabit the re-created village like Pilgrims of yore — say they are being overworked and bullied . . .

“Some of the steps they’re taking,” said Kate Moore, a 23-year plantation employee who helped lead the unionization campaign, “almost seem like they’re trying to run us into the ground.”

Of course, the above statements by Plimoth Plantation employees are evidence of what this blog has argued over several years about museum employers’ exploitation of their workers love for their job by failing to provide sufficient time, tools, & resources to meet goals (Murphy 2008). In the sociology of work, such employees & volunteers are identified as “occupational devotees.”

According to Robert A. Stebbins (2004, ix, 10), museum, library, and archives workers occupy a unique category of individuals characterised by a strong and positive attachment to “a form of self-enhancing work where the sense of achievement is high and the core activity (set of tasks) is endowed with intense appeal.” This results in the virtual erasure of the line between the work and leisure.

Stebbins maintains that occupational devotees operate with a high value commitment and a “profound love for the job” that, significantly, is regarded as “socially important, highly challenging, intensely absorbing, immensely appealing . . . [&] rewarded by self-actualisation or self-development” (Stebbins 2004: 10, cf. 17, 76).

Thus, it is arguable that museum workers are at high risk of becoming what Bunting (2014) refers to as “willing slaves” to our jobs. Unresourced expectations in our field are met by museum practitioners working harder, faster, longer than paid, due to an unremitting commitment to excellence.

The news regarding the quality of working lives concerns among the Plimoth Plantation workers is a continuation of a 2017 labour action at the Plantation. As reported at the time,

Kate Moore, chairwoman of the Plimoth Plantation union and an employee of 22 years, said employees decided to unionize after management failed to hear their concerns about staffing shortages that make it difficult and unsafe for employees to leave their posts for breaks; employees being arbitrarily fired or laid off; and unlivable wages, with some longtime employees making hardly more than minimum wage (Trufant 2017).

Response from the employer remains consistent. Parallel to the previous year, in 2018 management explains as follows:

[Kate] Sheehan, the museum spokeswoman, said any notion the plantation is in peril or sacrificing any of its original values is misguided.

 “To suggest that any part of our experience is less than it used to be is, to me, a disservice to the incredible work that is going on here across every department,” she said (Arnett 2018).

Such rejections of the overwork problem by an employer are common practice under such circumstances (Posen 2013: 172-3, 247, 321). The actual quality of working lives on the front lines is ignored.

In summary, I would argue that employees at Plimoth Plantation who feel overworked are by no means alone in this human resources crisis afflicting museums & related heritage operations across North America.

As argued here previously, it is long past time for museum workers to take action on issues that destroy the quality of working lives in the field we love. See recent posts on this blog identifying potential ways & means of solving these problems at the level of professional museum organisations.

Readers are encouraged to consult Arnett (2018) & Trufant (2017) for further details on the Plimoth Plantation poor working conditions that are widespread across the museum sector. Also please search this blog for the terms “overwork” & “work intensification,” as well as its core concept of “task saturation” among museum workers.

In addition, see Thistle (2015) & Thistle (2017) for further analyses of the role of museum management in the chronic default—if not deliberate—exploitation of “occupational devotee” workers in our field.

References Cited:

Bunting, Madeline. 2004. Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Arnett, Dugan. 2018. “At Plimoth Plantation, not all employees are thankful.” Boston Globe, November 17, 2018 at https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/11/17/plimoth-plantation-not-all-employees-are-thankful/Ozg9MgDvM6hlUO2Lf6KuTP/story.html?et_rid=1932273527&s_campaign=todaysheadlines:newsletter&fbclid=IwAR2DF4tOlFgUM27K1OhvdIyaySqBQXOntCprl8Cy1B1BpAH_SyjGXxAmb5g (accessed 20 November 2018).

Higgins, Chris, Duxbury, Linda, & Lyons, Sean. 2008. Reducing Work-Life Conflict: What Works? What Doesn’t. Report 5. Ottawa: Health Canada at https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/environmental-workplace-health/reports-publications/occupational-health-safety/reducing-work-life-conflict-what-works-what-doesn.html (accessed 20 November 2018).

Murphy, James D. 2008. “How to Overcome Task Saturation for Flawless Execution www.myarticlearchive.com/articles/5/071.htm (accessed 20 November 2018).

Posen, David. 2013. Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.

Stebbins, Robert A. 2004. Between Work and Leisure: The Common Ground of Two Separate Worlds. New Brunswick, USA: Transaction Publishers.

Thistle, Paul C. 2017. “Museum Workers Leaving the Field: Survey Results & Solutions.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted on 14 November 2017 at https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/museum-workers-leaving-the-field-survey-results-solutions/ (accessed 20 November 2018).

Thistle, Paul C. 2015. ” Managing Expectation Inflation & Resulting Stress in Museum Work.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted on 15 May at https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/managing-expectation-inflation-resulting-stress-in-museum-work/ (accessed 20 November 2018).

Trufant, Jessica. 2017. “Plimoth Plantation ‘interpreters’ protest wages, working conditions.” The Patriot Ledger updated Aug 28, 2017 at 9:58 AM http://www.patriotledger.com/news/20170827/plimoth-plantation-interpreters-protest-wages-working-conditions (accessed 20 November 2018).