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Art Institute employees say management trying to block their unionization efforts

Workers at the institute’s school and museum say management has used misinformation and intimidation to stall the drive, but museum officials denied the claims.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the museum has employed intimidation tactics to hamper attempts to form union. He spoke on the Art Institute of Chicago steps on Michigan Ave.
Anders Lindall, spokesman for the Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the Art Institute of Chicago has employed intimidation tactics to hamper attempts to form union.
Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times

Employees of the Art Institute of Chicago say museum management is trying to hinder their attempt to collectively bargain — and they are demanding officials step aside and allow unionization efforts to proceed without interference.

Staff from the institute’s museum and school filed paperwork earlier this month to hold a federally run election that will decide if they can form a union. But management has intimidated workers and held meetings to obstruct unionization, workers charged at a rally Monday on the institute’s famous front steps on Michigan Avenue.

Many employees, organizing as the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United, are pushing to affiliate with the council.

“We’ve seen very typical corporate anti-union talking points and tactics being disseminated by the leadership of the museum and the school,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Those tactics include “implicitly threatening workers” about losing benefits and “wrongly telling workers” they’re ineligible for the union, Lindall said. Workers suspected of leading unionization efforts have also received unusually poor performance reviews, which appear to be retaliatory, he added.

“All of these things are very subtle, but because they are so subtle they are insidious,” Lindall said. “Management is trying outwardly to claim that they respect workers rights, but all their internal communication, implicit threats and thinly veiled warnings are anything but neutral.”

Museum workers and politicians called on museum leadership to remain neutral as a vote on unionizing nears. Stand on steps of Museum Art Institute Chicago
Museum workers and politicians called on museum leadership to remain neutral as a vote on unionizing nears.
Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times

In an email to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Art Institute says management officials have remained neutral throughout the process.

“As we have said from the beginning, we fully respect our employee’s right to decide whether or not they want to join a union,” an Art Institute spokesperson said. “This is an important decision that should be left up to each employee to make individually.”

The institute denied retaliating against employees or holding meetings to dissuade them from joining a union.

At the rally, workers said they have limited opportunities for raises and promotions, and that it’s difficult to advocate for workplace improvements without the strength of a union. A vote on whether to form a union has not been scheduled yet, but could take place in the coming weeks, the workers’ group said.

​​“Working for these institutions should not just be a job that we’re grateful to have while we struggle to get by,” said Catie Rutledge, a philanthropy coordinator at the museum. “It should be a career that we can devote ourselves to that rewards us in return.”

Employees also said the institute has also hired “union buster” firms to stamp out organizing efforts.

“It’s insulting, it’s upsetting, but we’re not going to be intimidated,” said Katie Bourgeois, a mailroom technician for the school.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit on the painter El Greco took years to assemble, then closed after less than a week due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Art Institute of Chicago refuted the employees’ claims in an email and said the decision to join a union should be left up to each worker
Sun-Times file

Bourgious said the museum has retained multiple attorneys and hired the PR firm Reputation Partners to stifle unionization efforts.

But the Art Institute spokesperson said the firms are there to ensure the organization is “following National Labor Relations Board rules” and “speaking accurately in our communications to staff.”

Katie Bourgeois (left) said the Art Institute has hired outside firms to hamper efforts to join a union
Katie Bourgeois (right) said the Art Institute has hired outside firms to hamper efforts to join a union
Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times

Lindall previously told the Chicago Sun-Times that “overwhelming majorities” of employees at the museum and the School of the Art Institute signed union authorization cards. The proposed bargaining unit would cover about 600 people, he said.

If the museum didn’t want an election, it could have voluntarily recognized the employees’ wishes to form a union, but management refused to do that, Lindall said.

A hearing to decide the date and terms of the election is scheduled for Wednesday, unless the two parties can come to an agreement before then, Lindall said.