Volume 21, Number 50 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 24 - 30, 2009
Chinese museum makes cuts as it builds new center
By Julie Shapiro
The Museum of Chinese in America laid off one worker and gave the rest of the staff a 5 percent pay cut last month in the face of a worsening economy.
Charles Lai, the museum’s executive director, said grant money is rapidly drying up, leaving him with no choice but to cut costs as the museum gears up for the opening of its new Centre St. location in June.
But the dismissed worker, Doreen Wang, 26, said her firing was less about economics and more about politics. She staged a protest in front of MoCA’s current location on Mulberry St. last Thursday, saying the museum overworks and underpays its workers. She filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the museum of firing her for trying to unionize the employees.
“I was fired for speaking out, for trying to improve our working environment,” Wang said.
Wang started working at the museum in 2006, leading walking tours and gallery programs. She later designed exhibits, including the permanent one that will be featured in the museum’s new location. She also continued working at the museum’s bookstore and with visitors — working nights and weekends without additional compensation or usable comp time, she said. She was paid $25,000 a year at first and got a raise to $28,0000, a figure Lai confirmed.
Wang started trying to form a union about a year ago but ramped up her efforts when Lai announced the pay cuts in March. She said Lai berated her in front of her coworkers and threatened her with dismissal before finally letting her go.
“How can they be good for the Chinese American community when they treat Chinese Americans like this?” Wang said at the small rally she led last Thursday. She is demanding to be reinstated.
Joining Wang was Wendy Cheung, another former MoCA employee who also said she was overworked. Cheung said the low pay and poor working conditions are not limited to MoCA but are common in other nonprofits as well.
The National Mobilization Against Sweatshops worked with Wang to help her plan the rally and file the application.
Lai said he could not comment directly on Wang’s allegations without consulting a lawyer.
“I’m saddened by all that,” he said. “It is not about her — it is about the position.” Wang’s main job was to build the exhibit for the new museum and that work is nearly done, Lai said.
Wang is not the only employee Lai has let go. He dismissed another worker last December, and over the past year an additional two workers left and Lai didn’t fill their positions, all because of cost concerns, he said
Lai said he has three major sources of funding for the museum — government, private corporations and nonprofits — and all three have shrunk their spending in the past year.
“I wish I was able to do a much better job in raising the money,” Lai said. “Our revenue is down, and our expenses are fairly constant…. We all have to balance our checkbooks so to speak, so what do we do?”
Lai — who co-founded the museum back in 1980, left in 1990 and returned in 2003 — said he would step down as executive director soon after the museum’s new location opens this summer. He said his goal when he returned six years ago was just to get the museum through its expansion and then move on, but he kept quiet on those plans until recently. The museum is still searching for a new executive director.
“We may not be able to pay enough for the ideal candidate,” Lai said, citing the museum’s finances.
Wang grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Brown University in 2005 with a degree in ethnic studies with a focus on the Chinese Diaspora. MoCA was her first job after college, and she worked there for three years. Lai gave her notice at the end of March and her last day was April 15. She was in front of the building protesting the very next afternoon.