You would think that in running an institution that relies so heavily on public support, everything from the hundreds of hours graciously donated by volunteers to the millions it is seeking in new state bonding money, that management at Mystic Seaport would strive for transparency and goodwill.
Indeed, over the years the Seaport has always tried hard to be a good neighbor. Local residents have shown their support for the institution by joining and donating.
So it was a little startling when Dan McFadden, the Seaport spokesman, told me Monday he didn't want to answer questions about employees trying to organize a union at the Seaport, calling it an "internal matter."
McFadden began our conversation with a big sigh when I asked about the unionizing effort, and then he said he had only two minutes to talk.
Seaport President Stephen White would also not be available to talk about the union drive, McFadden said, when I asked if I might speak to the head of the museum.
White returned to Connecticut early from a Seaport-related trip to Italy after news of the union drive broke late last week, McFadden said. White, who was due back Wednesday, returned over the weekend.
McFadden was as reluctant to talk about White's trip to Italy as he was to answer questions about employee efforts to bring in a union.
He did say the trip was a fundraiser and was organized and paid for by a group he called the "International Council," which he described as an advisory board to the museum. He refused to answer any other questions about the council or the trip or even confirm the itinerary, which reportedly was to include stops in Venice and Florence.
Presumably there is some fundraising link between Venice and Mystic Seaport, but the public is apparently not supposed to know what it might be.
I was ready to at least give White credit for cutting his trip to Italy short to deal with the labor issue. But then I learned from the union working with employees that management has known about the drive for some time.
So it looks more like White went on a European junket knowing full well that an employee crisis was astir and ended the trip only after news of it broke.
White, according to the Seaport's 2010 tax return, made $224,699 that year. A former boarding school headmaster, he began the job in 2009. The second highest paid employee at the museum in 2010 was Martha Withington, the chief financial officer, who made $190,000, according to the return.
No doubt those big salaries, and things like the trip to Italy, have played a part in the dissatisfaction of many loyal Seaport employees who have traditionally worked long hours at low pay, in the common interest of assisting a great institution.
In my many interviews with Seaport employees over the years, none of them timed, I have always been impressed with their dedication to what they do, from interpreters who gladly demonstrate a climb up a ship's rigging to the talented shipwrights practicing a lost craft.
It is sad that management seems to be losing their faith and trust.
Eric Excell-Bailey, a spokesman for AFT Connecticut, the union working with Seaport employees, took my call Monday and stayed on his cellphone until he had answered all my questions. He also invited me to a meeting tonight in which some Seaport employees have agreed to publicly discuss their grievances.
The union is collecting signatures on cards in which employees express their interest in a union. Those cards will be presented soon to the National Labor Relations Board, which could then schedule an election with a secret ballot, Excell-Bailey said.
All categories of workers, except management, would be included, he said. The Seaport has more than 200 employees, he added.
The Seaport would be the first museum in Connecticut represented by AFT, if the effort is successful, Excell-Bailey said.
Excell-Bailey was careful to say that Seaport employees should ultimately speak for themselves. But he characterized their complaints as more related to frustration with the management of the museum than things like pay and benefits.
The museum, which closed for the first time for the winter season, has also laid off workers recently and made other budget cutbacks.
"The people who work there truly love working there," Excell-Bailey said. "But they feel they need a stronger voice in what is happening."
This is the opinion of David Collins