Sparked by 2020’s pandemic-prompted layoffs and the year’s push for social justice, the nascent labor movement at the Art Institute of Chicago appears headed for an election that, if successful, would make the iconic institution the first major museum in the city to have a broad swath of its workers unionize.
The move also makes the Art Institute part of a national wave of unionization at leading cultural organizations, spurred by COVID layoffs, and could entice other local museum staff onto that bandwagon.
Last week, employees working to organize some 640 of their peers at the Michigan Avenue museum and at the affiliated School of the Art Institute announced a majority of those workers signed cards designating as their bargaining representative the new Art Institute of Chicago Workers United, which would be a part of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the massive national union.
In a news conference outside the museum and in letters to management, organizers asked the institutions to voluntarily recognize the worker group, a step that would forestall a formal election in the coming months and allow the union to start negotiating for its goals, including better wages and a greater say in how the school and museum are run.
“We are saying, with one voice, that it is our will to form this union,” Art Institute librarian and union organizer Kevin Whiteneir said at the Sept. 22 event that was punctuated by supporters chanting the union’s name—which they pronounced as “A-I-C-Whoo!”
Museum leaders are less enthusiastic. In a letter to staff the next day, while emphasizing that they support workers’ rights to unionize, they said the voluntary recognition shortcut will not happen.
“We want to be sure we honor each of your voices, whether you support unionization, do not support it or are still undecided,” said the letter signed by James Rondeau, Art Institute president and Eloise W. Martin director, and his leadership team. “Forgoing an election where each of you can make your individual voices heard is not in keeping with our values.”
The view was similar at the university, workplace to slightly less than half—about 300—of the people the new labor group is aiming to unionize. The nonmanagement staff who would be represented range from museum curators to school mailroom workers, from academic advisers to art handlers.
“SAIC has long been committed to working collaboratively with staff on issues of importance,” School of the Art Institute of Chicago spokeswoman Bree Witt said via e-mail. “In our view, the school can best continue to address these issues, including matters such as compensation, job stability and professional opportunities, without the involvement of a union.”
In interviews this week, union organizers said they are disappointed in what they see as counterproductive resistance on the part of management.
In frequent internal communications that the workers label as undermining and management sees as informational, Art Institute leaders emphasized voluntary steps they’ve taken toward pay equity; improved communications with employees on matters such as diversity, equity and inclusion; and what management sees as generous benefits, including more than five weeks of paid time off.
“The Art Institute has been committed to ensuring that the wages and benefits that we’re offering are either on par with or surpassing our peers,” said Kati Murphy, the museum’s public affairs director.
“In all the time that I’ve worked here, this is the most communication I’ve ever had with management ever,” said Katie Bourgeois, a mailroom technician and dock manager at the school. “I’m getting like weekly emails from (school President) Elissa Tenny telling me what’s up.”
Their current focus, Bourgeois and other organizers said, is to strengthen their hand by increasing the proportion of workers signing union cards before they call on the National Labor Relations Board to hold the determinative election.
“We want to make sure,” Whiteneir said, “that when we now have to go through the election process, that we show up in full force and say, ‘This is an overwhelming majority of our employee base that wants to be represented by, that wants to be part of, this union effort.’ “
“We’re not going to stretch this out forever,” added Eala O’Se, an organizer and a material source manager at the school. “But the timeline is dependent on making sure that we have the support we need.”
Unionization of cultural institutions is a national trend fueled recently by pandemic layoffs that, in many institutions, hit employees of color especially hard.
“This connects to the union idea because equity and equity-based protections are something that a unionized workplace can actually accomplish for themselves,” Whiteneir said. “A unionized workplace gets to. . .say, ‘These are the things that are disparities, and you will change them.’ “
AFSCME has been pushing to organize cultural workers, said Illinois chapter spokesman Anders Lindall, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art among those where workers have recently banded together.
In New York, workers at the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Brooklyn Museum have organized recently with the United Auto Workers, among other examples. The Brooklyn Museum’s NLRB election, held in August, saw the unionization effort win by an overwhelming margin.
“I do think that if the pandemic deepened the sense among employees in Chicago that there wasn’t a lot of transparency, there wasn’t a lot of accountability, that their jobs were somewhat tenuous and at the whims of top management, that that has been true around the country,” Lindall said.
Between them, as the pandemic forced periods of long museum closures and limited attendance that devastated revenues, Art Institute and the SAIC cut more than 150 jobs during the pandemic and put scores of workers on furlough while also instituting management pay cuts.
Past attempts to organize Chicago museum workers have seen only minor success.
Some technical workers at the Museum of Science & Industry belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, according to the Center for Union Facts, while the Service Employees International Union represents nonmanagement staff at the comparatively small DuSable Museum of African American History.
But unionization drives early in this century at the Field Museum and Chicago History Museum failed, as have more recent attempts to unionize part-time faculty at the School of the Art Institute, said Therese Quinn, professor and director of museum and exhibition studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“It’s wonderful to see there has finally been success across the museum and school,” said Quinn, a former full-time faculty member at SAIC. “Whenever we see a large institution like the Art Institute of Chicago unionize, it sends out a ripple effect and it incites other organizing attempts.”
In the view of non-Chicagoans, “This is the major cultural institution in many ways,” she added. “Nationally and internationally, people are going to have their eyes on this. And it puts Chicago more solidly on the map as a union town.”
All of that, of course, depends on how the unionization vote goes, and on that front organizers are confident.
“We just need to keep building momentum,” said O’Se, the SAIC materials manager. “And eventually, we will have enough support that if they continue to insist on not giving us voluntary recognition, we will have an election. And we’ll win it. And then we’ll have our union at the school and at the museum. And we’ll get to make these changes that we’ve been pushing for.”