Written By Eric Morse
Reposted with permission from the Museums + Democracy Project, a project founded by Eric Morse to explore all aspects of how museums can be more democratic. Originally published on 26 June 2020.
We need museum workplaces to be more democratic.
Museum workers are hurting. The coronavirus pandemic has brought layoffs and furloughs. In most cases, workers have not been included in the decision of who is laid off or furloughed. Now that museums are reopening, workers face possible exposure to the virus and many have not been consulted about how they will be kept safe.
Things weren’t much better before the virus hit. Expensive advanced degrees are required for positions that have salaries so low it’s difficult to pay back school loans and support living expenses. Salary inequality is common between men and women; between white people and Black, Indigenous, and people of color; and between leadership and most employees.
Museum workers are passionate and dedicated. They deserve to be treated much better than they are. For that to happen, workers need to use democracy to make a difference for themselves.
That’s where unions come in. Unions are democratic institutions. Unions are formed through a vote. Members elect their leaders and vote on agreements negotiated with employers. Unions allow workers to have a say in how their workplaces are run.
Recently, I spoke with Sarah Shaw, a coordinator of the Education Resource Center and a museum educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). Shaw is one of the organizers of the union at the museum.
The unionizing effort has its beginnings in 2019, when the Art + Museum Transparency spreadsheet was published. It allowed museum professionals to share their salaries at past and present positions.
Many at the PMA added their information. As they did, inequities became visible. There was salary inequity between men and women filling the exact same position and in benefits for full-time versus part-time employees.
“Those conversations grew and began to broaden outside of what was covered by the salary transparency spreadsheet,” said Shaw. One of those concerns was that the PMA had no parental leave policy or parental leave time pay.
“Those conversations grew very organically into talking about what we could achieve if we were unionized, what we could achieve through collective action and collective bargaining that we’re not able to achieve as individuals,” said Shaw. “It was a grassroots, homegrown movement that grew up around both the concerns that the salary transparency spreadsheet brought up and problems that had gone unvoiced for a long time.”
Earlier this year, it was revealed that PMA leadership inadequately handled sexual harassment and bullying toward staff by former managers. Shaw is quick to point out that the effort to begin to unionize began before these scandals became public and that they are not the focus of the unionization effort.
“I hesitate to give too much weight to those stories because it feels like it frames the organizing effort in a negative way. That it is just people who have grievances against management at the museum and that is not the case,” said Shaw. “Those stories are a small part of a constellation of much larger concerns that can be addressed by workers having a voice in the workplace and having a seat at the table when decisions are made.”
A lack of transparency runs through all the issues employees hope to address through the union, whether salary inequality, benefits, or workplace policies.
“We want to improve employee morale by having clear, transparent systems in place that can improve relationships between managers and employees,” says Shaw.
For love of the museum and each other
The union’s website says employees “are unionizing out of a love of the arts, the museum, and each other.”
Shaw says one of the goals is to make museum labor more visible and valued. She says that in the eyes of the public—and too often museum leadership, boards, and donors—the focus is on collections and buildings.
“Museums would not function without the human labor and it does not make sense for the heart of a cultural institution to be valued so much less than the collections or the building,” said Shaw. “Unionizing is the most effective way for us to assert our value to the institution. Unionizing is the most effective way to make that sometimes invisible labor material to the institution.”
Museums have focused on making staff more diverse. But not improving salaries or changing educational requirements has prevented that goal from becoming a reality. During the recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the public has noticed that museums have not improved in this area. Shaw says unions can help.
“Making changes to hiring practices, employee support and promotion, and pay equity will make our workplace more diverse and look more like the city of Philadelphia,” said Shaw. “That is going to make the PMA a more welcoming place to everyone.”
A museum’s worth is measured by how well it serves its community, and that includes its own employees. Shaw says that a unionized workforce benefits the community as well.
“The workers of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are Philadelphia’s workers,” says Shaw. “Improving the working conditions, improving the standard of living, improving benefits, making our workplace more inclusive and more equitable, that is a service not just to the workers of the museum but a service to our community because we are part of Philadelphia.”
Where the unionization effort is today
By March of this year, a supermajority of eligible employees had signed authorization cards indicating they supported forming a union. The PMA leadership had the option to voluntarily recognize the union. Instead, leaders hired an anti-union law firm to handle negotiations with the union and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
During the initial NLRB hearing [near the end of June], PMA leadership and its law firm claimed that some employees are not “core” to the museum’s mission and that “core” and “non-core” employees should be split into two unions. “Non-core” positions, according to PMA leaders, include visitor services, technology, development, and membership, among others. This is ridiculous. Every position at a museum is core to the mission.
Unions provide employees with an opportunity to have a say in layoffs and rehiring, which is critical at a time like this.
“Workers who aren’t unionized in institutions that have instituted furloughs and layoffs have no legal recourse,” says Shaw. “At least if you are unionized, there is a legal mechanism to negotiate an extension of benefits or rehiring policies. You can negotiate that when the museum is ready to rehire workers they are going to rehire folks who were laid off, not all new people.”
Unfortunately for workers at the PMA, since the union is not yet recognized, workers will not have a say on furloughs and layoffs. On June 24, the PMA announced that 100 staff members would be furloughed or lose their jobs through voluntary departures and possible layoffs. A museum spokesperson told the Philadelphia Inquirer that furloughs were distributed across departments, but that the curatorial and conservation staff were not impacted. A union organizer told the newspaper that many working in visitor services were being furloughed. This is more insight into what the museum views as “core” and “non-core” positions.
On June 25, the union and the PMA reached an agreement. The union will not be split into “core” and “non-core” employees. Since the museum failed to voluntarily recognize the union, employees now need to vote whether they will unionize. Employees who are eligible to participate in the election, even if they are furloughed during the voting, will be allowed to vote. Votes will be taken by mail July 9 – 30 and counted on August 6. Since a supermajority have already signed authorization cards, it is expected that the vote will be overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing. If that is the case, the museum must recognize the union. The Museums + Democracy Project will continue to follow this effort.
Museum workers should support unionization efforts everywhere. As these efforts grow they improve conditions for everyone in the field. More democracy in museum workplaces benefits workers. Through improving conditions for workers, unions benefit museums and their communities as well.
Interested in how you might start a union at your museum? The next blog post will detail the steps employees at the PMA took to organize and establish their union.
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About the Author
ERIC MORSE: Founder of the Museums + Democracy Project, and a museum professional in central Iowa in the United States. Eric has a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University. He has experience working in museums, non-profits, and communications. Eric is the founder of the Central Iowa Community Museum. This new museum has a mission to create more democracy through exhibitions that celebrate the people of central Iowa and the issues they must face together. Eric is writing a book on the subject of Museums + Democracy.