Art Institute workers file for union election

Employees of the museum and its school are seeking to affiliate with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

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Dozens line up to visit The Obama Portraits, featuring Kehinde Wiley’s painting of former President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrayal of former First Lady Michelle Obama, on the first day the official portraits are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Friday morning, June 18, 2021. The exhibit runs through Aug. 15 in Chicago.

Employees of the Art Institute of Chicago and its school want to affiliate with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Employees of the Art Institute of Chicago and its school filed petitions Tuesday for a federally run election that will decide if they can form a union.

The workers submitted petitions for the election at the National Labor Relations Board’s office in Chicago. They are seeking to affiliate with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31, said the NLRB received union authorization cards signed by “overwhelming majorities” of employees at the museum and the School of the Art Institute. The proposed bargaining unit would cover about 600 people, Lindall said.

He said the filing will lead to a hearing within 14 business days and that an election should occur in a few weeks.

Organizers made the campaign public in August, asking the museum to voluntarily recognize the union. Managers haven’t done so and have urged workers to reject the union.

“As we have said from the beginning, we fully respect our staff’s right — as individuals — to decide whether or not to join a union,” a museum spokesperson said via email. “We are committed to following the NLRB’s legally prescribed and fair election process to ensure we can comprehensively account for all voices at the museum and school.”

Most employers, when faced with a union drive, want the process to go to a secret-ballot election. It requires a union to demonstrate the depth of support while giving an employer time to make its case against unionization.

“As we prepare for our election, we call on leadership of the museum and the school to remain truly neutral. Forming our union is a decision for us, the employees, to make — not the employer — and we are smart enough to make an informed decision on our own,” said Michael Zapata, an academic adviser at the school.

A successful union drive would be the first in the Art Institute’s history, Lindall said. Issues have included pay levels and workloads, as well as how decisions affecting staff are made and communicated.

The museum has been caught in a furor over its dismissal of longtime volunteer docents as part of a push for racial and economic diversity. Lindall said the controversy had no effect on the organizing campaign.

AFSCME is known for representing government workers, but its members include 10,000 museum workers nationally. It also represents staff at the Chicago Public Library, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and the Library of Congress.

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