Thursday, August 30, 2012

An Open Letter to Penland’s Board of Directors- Chris Winterstein former Iron and Wood Coordinator.

There are people, we all know them, who are so angry they’ve just gone crazy. People who are hard to join sides with even when they’re right because their kind of anger is hard to be around, and often difficult to justify. In its recently posted “Response to Recent Allegations about Penland’s Labor Practices,” Penland responds as if to one of them, offering to take the high road and let bygones be bygones. But John Britt is not one of those people. And theirs is not the high road. I worked along with John Britt for most of his tenure at Penland as coordinator of the iron studio from 2001-2005, and also of the wood studio in 2002 and 2003. As I remember him from that time, John had a remarkably amicable relationship with the school’s administration and was a good humored and dedicated member of the staff. I’m sure there are annual performance reviews in a file somewhere that would make the case plenty well that he was a model coordinator.

Since then, John has made his life in the neighborhood. So why the rift? If the school, as it contends in its Response, had met its obligation to everyone’s satisfaction but John’s, why on earth would he, or anyone (particularly a potter living in Western North Carolina) risk his standing in the community and his relationship with the school defending a bunch of happy former employees? John has never been compensated, but he insisted that others who had been impacted by Penland’s illegal policies be compensated fairly instead. OK, so maybe he is crazy – but damn honorable. And he is not making this up.

A disclosure: I have never approached Penland for compensation. I was unaware compensation had been offered, and whether or not I fit in the class depends on how far they’ve gone back. But John’s point is stronger than compensation denied or granted. Why hasn’t Penland contacted me? Why stop at two years? They have admitted fault and corrected the offending policy, but they haven’t even tried to correct the offense itself. For that matter, have they even apologized? If I found myself to have made an error that negatively impacted a group of people I had any respect for, the first thing I’d do is apologize to all of them.

Penland gives two answers for refusing to reconsider the issue. First, there is time passed; but if there is a statute of limitation which denies former employees any legal recourse, does that clear the obligation of an organization dedicated “to teaching the value of the handmade” to fairly compensate those craftspeople they employed as facilitators of that teaching? Secondly, the Penland response cites poor records. Does anyone really believe that an organization demonstrating Penland’s institutional depth and maturity – managing monstrous infrastructure and attendant liability, securing grants and donations, hiring renowned architects to design award-winning structures, putting on vast benefit events, all while pursuing its mission – doesn’t have past payroll information readily accessible? Doesn’t an audit require years of filing information? Obviously I am in no position to know what records Penland has or doesn’t have, but I suggest that anyone who thinks Penland hasn’t had that information – submitted by staff members every pay period, digitized and saved for annual budget building and employee reviews – ready at hand doesn’t know and has never worked with Laura Way. Furthermore, there was a separate and legal overtime policy in effect for other staffing areas of the school during the time in question. I will not speculate as to whether Penland knew their overtime policy for coordinators was illegal, but the effect was clearly sought: pay the coordinators less than you would under another (legal) policy. Is this any way for an arts-based institution to prioritize the labor (admitted in the Response as often being provided to the school below market value) of the craftspeople it employs?

Penland goes on in its Response to state, “both the law and common sense suggest that it is time to move on.” Generally, I don’t understand the law to suggest anything. The law didn’t suggest Penland pay coordinators fairly, it demanded it. Now enough time has passed that the law will not demand Penland do anything regarding those undercompensated employees, but the law has no say regarding what Penland may do to right its unfortunate error. It seems a conflict of interest that a few people making real-world salaries can decide that it is common sense to move forward while they have yet denied fair and legal compensation to the people who worked for them.

Here’s the real problem and here’s why Penland thinks it can move on. Anyone who’s witnessed the carefully mediated Penland student experience might reasonably assume that Penland is an ideal employer. It isn’t. In fact, Penland is a classic case of why unions happen. A steady supply of people ready at hand who’d love to get paid to stay, combined with the toothless labor policy of and at-will state give management the upper hand when dealing with people who sincerely support the school’s mission. Added to that there is a tightly controlled one-way flow of information to the Board. It is, or at least was in my time, against employee policy for staff members to discuss school policy with members of the Board of Directors or the greater Penland community. This type of policy is quite common but it still seems appropriate to ask of an organization like Penland what the leadership would be so careful to prevent escaping from a staff of craftspeople devoted to Penland. And if those weren’t enough already to keep people in check, add to Penland’s unique situation a Director who is known for responding with personal attacks to professional dissent and it is not a bit surprising that you hear so little. Together, these factors often combine to leave staff members feeling as if they must choose between supporting that mission and speaking up in protest. I don’t say these things lightly. I would not speak except from personal experience, and I can’t speak for anyone else’s, but even in the worst case, where I am wrong or my experience unique, my contribution to this discussion shouldn’t discredit the central argument John has brought to everyone’s attention: Penland failed to fairly compensate a number of its workers for a number of years.

Given, or perhaps despite, all I said above, staff members often, to their credit, choose to stay and support the school’s mission, rather than risk their jobs protesting the conditions of their employment. They believe the school does fantastic work, brings together fantastic people and will outlast any given administrator. But ultimately they stay at their own expense, and that of others. They often leave unhappy, as will some of their successors, and so Penland also loses. There are always reasons not to speak up, chief among them being to just get along and preserve our welcome places at the school. But there are times to support each other and remember that for many of us, Penland’s success in pursuit of its mission is and should be inseparable from its success in building a supportive community that integrates the artists and craftspeople who work to insure it may continue that pursuit.

I’ve read comments to the effect that this is the conduct we should expect of a business operating on the scale of Penland, and yes, Penland is a business. To continue its work pursuing the mission we all support, it must be a well-managed one. But to say “this is what you get” is to cede the possibility of just corporate citizens. Shall we prioritize award winning air-conditioned housing for craft students in the mountains over fair compensation to the craftspeople who facilitate that mission just because we can? Because that’s easier money to raise? Why shouldn’t Penland step up to its presumed place as a leader in the field and go beyond proper compensation to provide a model of humane employment? Penland should show a better way. What institution is better positioned? It should be what most casual observers already think it is: a rare responsible corporate citizen, not only a place that educates, but one that supports working artists, beginning with its own staff.

Chris Winterstein

1 comment:

Phillip said...

Well said Chris.