How a union push, a 9-1-1 call, and “Barbenheimer” fermented into scandal at the Mattress Factory | Pittsburgh City Paper

How a union push, a 9-1-1 call, and “Barbenheimer” fermented into scandal at the Mattress Factory

In 2023, the Mattress Factory focused heavily on waste. The museum's Garden Party last June was trash-themed. An installation made of accumulated Mattress Factory detritus made a successful run through December interrogating sustainability. Other installations similarly used upcycled materials to evoke "the risk of failure" and the struggles of everyday life faced by part-time artists.

As the museum made refuse its artistic focus, a different sort of accumulation and disposal was going on behind the scenes — five years on from employee allegations of sexual assault and an administrative coverup, Mattress Factory workers were raising new concerns about safety, pay, and ethics. This culminated in a failed union drive, at least five confirmed firings plus additional turnover, the outsourcing of previously in-house roles, and even a 9-1-1 call.

Though many of the incidents at the center of this story happened last fall, now-former employees say the financial challenges of losing work persist to the present day. In at least one case, a dismissed staff member says they are facing eviction. The museum, meanwhile, has changed its staffing model and updated its brand.

The Museum Collects Itself

Morale was slow to recover after the museum's 2018 scandal, former employees say. According to those Pittsburgh City Paper spoke to, lingering unease from those allegations, overwork, and limited opportunities for advancement sowed seeds of discontent that sprouted early in 2023, when frontline staff at the Mattress Factory began to investigate the possibility of unionizing with a major local organizer.

"We had a really special group of people," former employee Taylor* tells City Paper (Taylor, like others in this story, requested anonymity to discuss their experiences while pursuing new employment opportunities). Taylor says the staff was creative, inclusive, and held disproportionately LGBTQ, BIPOC, and disabled identities compared to the museum's leadership.

"We all, also, had experienced trauma outside of working at Mattress Factory, which is why I think there was such a push for unionization," Taylor says. "We were like, 'We don't want other people who could be in this situation to be being traumatized by their workplace.'"

In March, the museum opened an exhibition by Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis called The Museum Collects Itself. The installation was a striking one — its main precept was that Mattress Factory staff would gather waste from art prep and handling, including offcut wood, scrap cardstock, plastic film, and bubblewrap, and collect it in the museum's Monterey Annex.

"We designed the system for the museum to carry out, describing the central concept of the work — a concept that the museum was completely on board with," Clayton and Lewis told CP via email. The pair says they "had positive experiences all around" with museum staff and management. Mattress Factory executive director David Oresick likewise says, "We believed [The Museum Collects Itself], then and now, was an innovative and important installation."

The work as described on the Mattress Factory website was designed to collect "10-months [sic] of trash" in "an ever-evolving accumulation, forming piles into dunes, dunes into hills, slowly filling the space."

For Taylor, who says the museum "[did]n't really want a system," this was precisely the problem. "There were health concerns because they were like, 'Yeah, we're gonna put glass in there.' And they weren't thoughtful about where they were gonna put the glass."

"The only thing that I can say that is a kind word about that installation is it really truly highlights the absurdities of capitalism," Taylor continues. "We were being paid $13 an hour to sort through trash for these people who were not putting in labor."

While the piece provided commentary on sustainability, former employee Sam* says it sparked safety concerns and reminded some employees of bad past experiences with homelessness. Sam says when staff raised these concerns to Oresick and museum brass, "we kind of sensed we became, like, 'problem children' for our managers and the director."

Clayton and Lewis say they were unaware of these issues and characterize the work's process differently. "From the start … we determined that any waste deemed unsafe would not be part of the work," they said in their email. "The piece was constantly monitored for stability and safety by the museum staff. We observed that the museum took careful measures to make sure the environment was safe."

Oresick likewise says there were procedures in place to ensure employee safety. "We’ll work with any employee who does not want to engage with an exhibit as much as possible," he tells CP. "Both the safety and quality of that exhibit are reflected in the more than 40,000 Mattress Factory visitors who took the opportunity to experience it."

Meanwhile, frontline staff sought broader union buy-in from non-managerial employees. Former staff interviewed for this story say that, at some point in the spring, someone took that news of the union effort to museum directors.

Michael Gibson was the Mattress Factory's marketing director until late July 2023. As an administrator, Gibson would've been ineligible for union representation, but he says he was broadly supportive of the efforts and sympathetic to staff including visitor experience associates (VEAs), who were paid hourly wages and often worked inconsistent, part-time schedules.

"The wages at the bottom were $12 an hour," Gibson tells CP. He says part-time staff could sign up for the museum's health insurance policy but had to pay for it out of pocket.

"While working at the museum, the VEAs were teaching each other to apply for food stamps," he says.

Staff concerns had been mounting around issues including pay, scheduling, and the potential hazards of The Museum Collects Itself when one former VEA says a museumgoer assaulted them on Mattress Factory grounds. 

"That kind of got brushed under the rug by the executive director," Sam tells CP. Former staffers say this incident and administration's perceived lack of concern created more urgency around the policy changes they hoped a union would make possible.

click to enlarge How a union push, a 9-1-1 call, and “Barbenheimer” fermented into scandal at the Mattress Factory
Mattress Factory museum on the North Side

While this was happening, Gibson was struggling to bounce back from a monthslong medical leave, during which he says he was still working "pretty much every day."

The museum, meanwhile, brought in a union-busting law firm, Gibson says. (Oresick tells CP that "in 2023, we made it clear to all staff that decisions on collective bargaining are up to each employee. Then and now, we have had no contact with any representatives of organized labor.") The museum also contracted with Outmark, a marketing outsourcing firm, to "streamline" communications around this time. Gibson says he believes this firm continues to work with the museum to create marketing materials. According to the museum's staff page, the Mattress Factory currently has a marketing project manager but no longer employs someone with Gibson's former title.

With distrust mounting, trash accumulating, and the museum's leadership preparing for a major brand overhaul, it was, of all things, a summer social media post about “Barbenheimer” that set the scene for a string of dismissals and recrimination.

Barbies, blow-ups, and betrayal

Like other arts marketers around the country, Gibson sought a boost on social media by riffing on the dueling blockbusters of Barbie and Oppenheimer, in this case using Sarah Oppenheimer's convenient surname and permanent installation, 611-3556. CP was able to view the since-deleted post, which encouraged visitors to treat a post-movie visit to 611-3556 as a "double feature."

"Here was my reasoning: it's timely, it's engaging, we're seeing a lot of people interested in it. It directly talks to one of our pieces … Sarah [Oppenheimer] talked about being a film director. It all really fits," Gibson recalls explaining.

Gibson says Oresick wasn't amused by the post in spite of the engagement it fostered and requested that it be taken down. In response, Gibson says he shared "like 15 links" to other museums' posts tied to Barbenheimer.

"I said, 'with that additional context, if you still want me to take it down, I will; just let me know.'" Oresick maintained the post was "inappropriate," according to Gibson, who then removed it. He says the atmosphere at the museum had begun to change and describes a "culture of secretiveness."

Gibson, who says he still felt "underwater" and was "catching up" following his medical leave, reached out to discuss the situation with the museum's part-time human resources representative, Fatima Bunafoor. Bunafoor, in a unique arrangement, worked for the museum and three other Pittsburgh arts nonprofits simultaneously. CP was unable to reach her for comment by press time. Though it seems Bunafoor is no longer with the museum, Oresick says the Mattress Factory "provide[s] human resources support through a dedicated full-time staff member and a highly-regarded firm."

When called in for a meeting with Oresick two days later, Gibson says he was presented with a performance improvement plan that contained "inaccurate information." If he refused to sign and thereby endorse its contents, Gibson says he was told, he would be let go — which is what ultimately happened. Oresick declined to address this incident or any other personnel matters at the museum, citing sensitivity and privacy.

Meanwhile, frontline staff say they began to feel the pressure. Former employee Tracy* says staff was "frustrated" with "disorganization" and "mismanagement" and felt unable to voice concerns without blowback.

"The last few months [I worked at the museum] consisted of a lot of distancing between the front of house and back of house," Tracy tells CP

click to enlarge How a union push, a 9-1-1 call, and “Barbenheimer” fermented into scandal at the Mattress Factory
Michael Gibson, former marketing director for Mattress Factory, poses for a portrait.

Former employees also say they were frustrated that wages remained stagnant while the museum spent funds on a sweeping rebrand and earned a windfall from the Trash Bash Garden Party.

"Staff wasn't getting paid a living wage … yet there always was money in the budget to buy birthday cakes each month for whomever had a birthday that month on the staff, or to throw pizza parties every other week," Tracy says. "While all this was going on, we never had an in-house HR person that was readily present or available to help."

Another dismissal came during a tense meeting later in the fall. While CP is not divulging all reported details to protect our sources, all former employees familiar with the situation allege that the precipitating incident was late arrival at work by between five and fifteen minutes. The meeting went poorly and eventually made its way to the popular Twitter account Pittsburgh Scanner after Mattress Factory director of operations Mallory Locante called police.

Though the tweet alleged the distressed employee "threaten[ed] to beat up the entire building," multiple former employees say this was not true, and CP was able to independently verify that — although the incident was highly unpleasant — this employee did not threaten other staff with physical violence.

(CP additionally sent a public records request to the City of Pittsburgh for any records related to this incident. The city responded on Feb. 29 that it was denying the request as it was "not in possession of the requested records".)

This particular firing proved to be a tipping point for frontline workers. Sam says a manager raised their voice to employees during a meeting in the days after the 9-1-1 call, and when Sam raised concerns, those complaints made their way up the chain. "I was like, 'Oh, Jesus, okay, I'm probably next,'" Sam says.

Sam was dismissed.

"​​Three days later, another friend of mine and coworker [got] let go," Sam tells CP. "There were a couple others who were just very intimidated … and they just left, so that really reduced a lot of numbers and a lot of hope for the union."

click to enlarge How a union push, a 9-1-1 call, and “Barbenheimer” fermented into scandal at the Mattress Factory
Michael Gibson, former marketing director for Mattress Factory, talks to his dog, Faolin.

At least one former Mattress Factory staff member was apparently fired by phone from a new HR person based in Ohio on their day off. Morale plummeted. Tracy alleges that museum leadership perceived many of the dismissed workers as "ringleaders" of the nascent union effort.

"Their efforts to make progress towards visitor safety policy change and help make other changes were usually met with contradictory actions on the management's behalf," Tracy says. Tracy describes the mentality among managers as "keep quiet and do your job or leave."

Oresick defends the museum's employment practices. "We have policies, procedures, and a process that meet or exceed all state and federal guidelines to accommodate employees with disabilities, and we follow those policies," he tells CP.

He says the museum has robust policies in place to deal with inappropriate behavior and discrimination, as well. "We want employees to alert us immediately to any concerns, and we will respond, investigate, and take appropriate action," he says. "All staff members receive annual training on these issues, with managers receiving additional training. We have a whistleblower policy and a confidential email to report HR issues.

"It's this simple," he says. "We will not tolerate harassment of any kind in our museum."

The unemployment line

Taylor says being fired led right back to the circumstances that made The Museum Collects Itself and part-time work distressing — namely, housing insecurity and a mounting sense of powerlessness after being cast aside.

"Honestly, working at Mattress Factory was good preparation for being unemployed," Taylor tells CP.

Taylor is not alone. Though some former workers have since been able to access state unemployment benefits, others have not. Gibson says the plight of former museum workers has, in some cases, become acute, with dismissed employees struggling to find jobs, obtain food, or maintain their housing or utilities.

"The VEAs, they're not in a super awesome financial position, but I've been helping them pay for groceries, I've commissioned art from them and pushed their [artwork]," Gibson, who has found another position, says. "One of them asked if they could live in my basement."

Gibson says about half of those who were fired or quit — seven or eight in all by his estimation — are still looking for a job. Part of the issue, he says, is that the Mattress Factory has fought some former employees' unemployment claims, which has exacerbated their financial difficulties. Gibson and others interviewed for this story allege that the museum used claims of "insubordination" to exclude some employees from post-employment compensation. 

"That's the salt in the wound," Gibson says. "Why fight our unemployment? Just move on!"

Tracy says the personnel issues "affected me greatly" in terms of finances and mental health and is still looking for steady work. Sam and Taylor are likewise still in the process of seeking new roles. In spite of all of this, some former staff members wish the best for the institution and are hopeful that future employees can negotiate for improvements.

"I, above all else, just want fair and equal treatment and consideration for the current and future staff of Mattress Factory … and that they are paid a fair, living wage," Tracy says, capturing sentiments other former employees shared with CP. "In another world … I would love it if I could even return to continue the job and be around people that cared for [the museum]."

Oresick says staff is critical to the institution's mission. "The art made at Mattress Factory reflects our employees’ dedication, talent, and enthusiasm for this work," he tells CP. "Without them, this work cannot happen, and our employees’ welfare and wellbeing are paramount."

Employees on and off the record say the museum — in spite of its turbulent recent years — is an invaluable part of Pittsburgh's art landscape. Gibson, for one, says he harbors no ill will toward the museum and hopes that speaking up brings positive changes to the Mattress Factory. "When I saw the broader scope and the issues and targeting of teammates that couldn't defend themselves, I had to be there for them," he tells CP. "At its heart, that's the mission of the museum: to stand up for independent artists in the region." 

"I'm hurt, I'm angry, and I'm a little scared, but I would walk into traffic for that museum still."

Correction: This article has been updated to remove an erroneous dollar figure for the Mattress Factory's rebrand.

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