Art Institute workers want union recognition

The employees want to affiliate with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and are asking management not to interfere with the campaign.

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People congregate outside the Art Institute of Chicago in June.

Organizers said they hope to unionize about 330 Art Institute employees, some of whom were affected by furloughs and temporary pay cuts during the pandemic.

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Employees at the Art Institute of Chicago are organizing a union and asking managers not to interfere with their campaign, potentially opening a new frontier in local labor activism.

Organizers said they hope to unionize about 330 museum employees, some of whom were affected by furloughs and temporary pay cuts during the pandemic. They want to affiliate with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The group posted a letter Tuesday signed by 60 workers calling for more power over decisions affecting staff. It cited concerns about wages, workloads and working conditions.

“The museum currently operates on a system of hierarchy and opaque decision-making that undermines its stated goals and values,” the letter said, adding that “there can be no equity without power sharing.”

Sheila Majumdar, an editor in the publishing department, said the museum’s response to the pandemic gave impetus to the organizing drive. She said management can’t be blamed for the outbreak, but “what they had control over is how they made decisions and how they communicated them and implemented them.”

She said wages are stagnant and that staff took temporary pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs last year as the Art Institute reduced operations. Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31, said the museum cut no jobs among top executives.

However, museum spokesperson Kati Murphy said layoffs and furloughs included people at all levels. She also said that “pay cuts over the past year were scaled to impact higher-paid staff, with museum leadership taking cuts of up to 50%.”

The letter calls on management to be neutral in the organizing campaign and to recognize the union once organizers get signed authorizations cards from a large majority of the proposed bargaining unit. “We ask that management not waste resources on distributing anti-union propaganda, hiring anti-union lawyers, or holding mandatory anti-union meetings,” the letter said.

Murphy issued a statement that read, “The Art Institute has worked to cultivatean environment where staff feel comfortable sharing concerns, engaging in dialogue, and identifying opportunities for improvement.We have a longstanding commitment and track record of working collaboratively and addressing issues of importance to our employees, including equity, wages and other concerns.

“While werecognize and support employees’ deciding whether or not to unionize, our preference is to continue to work with and treat our staff as the unique individuals they are and address their concerns directly, without the presence of a union.”

An employer can voluntarily recognize a union when presented with the cards, but most opt for a secret-ballot election run by the National Labor Relations Board.

Majumdar and Lindall declined to say how many cards employees have signed. The group is “driving toward an overwhelming majority,” Lindall said. “They do this with love and enthusiasm for the museum.”

The campaign is drawing strong support, although some workers fear retaliation, said Majumdar, a museum employee for two years.

Union membership is slight among the workers at Chicago museums. Local 73 of the Service Employees International Union represents staff at the DuSable Museum of African American History. Lindall said certain workers at the Museum of Science and Industry belong to the electricians union.

A successful union drive would be the first in the Art Institute’s history, he said.

The proposed bargaining unit would cover most of the Art Institute’s employees, excluding managers and those who work for its school. Lindall said the institution employs about 500 people.

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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