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 10 July 2020.
Interested in forming a union at your museum, but not sure how to do it? This post shares the steps taken by the employees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) to create their union.
While any unionizing effort will be unique based on the local circumstances and conditions, the steps below can be used as a template.
Create Transparency, Talk, and Listen
For any unionization effort to start, employees need to begin talking to each other about their salaries, benefits, and working conditions. These are the main areas unions and management will negotiate through a contract.
The Art + Museum Transparency spreadsheet that was published last year was a catalyst for employees at the PMA.
That spreadsheet allowed museum professionals to post their job titles, salaries, and benefits from current and past positions. Many at the PMA added their information. The transparency created by the spreadsheet allowed employees to see salary inequities between employees with the same job title and in benefits for full-time versus part-time employees.
Sarah Shaw is a coordinator of the Education Resource Center and a museum educator at the PMA. She is also an organizer of the union. Shaw says that it was important that employees from across the museum talked to each other because it broadened the conversations to include other concerns.
“Individuals across the museum, across different departments, started having conversations that were ignited by the spreadsheet,” says Shaw. “As we talked to more and more of our colleagues and started trying to crowdsource issues that people had we heard concerns in addition to salary and benefits.”
Those concerns included a lack of effective policies to keep employees safe.
“The most important way that we have gone about this work is by using our networks and individual connections,” says Shaw. “One-on-one conversations have been the meat of this organizing effort.”
Shaw says that employees had conversations over coffee, during lunch, or meeting up after work. When the pandemic hit, they continued to have conversations over the phone and by using online meeting tools such as Zoom.
Shaw also said that listening has been critical. “We have been intentional about making seventy percent of the conversations listening to our co-workers, what they love about their job, what they wish they could change about their job, ways that they feel both empowered and powerless in their job, and relating those concerns to what we can accomplish together through a union that we cannot as individuals,” says Shaw.
Create an Organizing Committee
As PMA employees continued to talk about the workplace issues important to them, they also began to discuss how they could organize to make positive changes for themselves. This led them to realize a union was needed.
An organizing committee formed organically. “Our committee has really grown over the past year, but it is entirely made up of individuals who have said, ‘This is important to me, I have the time and energy to put into it,’” says Shaw.
Research a Union to Affiliate With
If you are going to organize a union at your museum, you will probably need the support of an existing union. You’ll want to choose a union that will understand the museum environment, so it can best serve your needs.
Don’t be fooled by the names of unions. Museum workers have affiliated their unions with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the United Auto Workers, and the International Union of Operating Engineers, among others.
“We did a lot of research into unions to find the one we would affiliate with,” says Shaw. “We needed to have an established union with legal representation and expertise in contract negotiation and who can advise us through this process. They are the support system that we need in order to get the campaign off the ground and win our election and our first contract.”
The PMA employees decided to affiliate with AFSCME District Council 47. One of the reasons is because AFSCME has experience working with other museum unions and the local District Council represents workers in environments similar to museums.
“They represent workers in non-profits in Philadelphia, at the Philadelphia Zoo, and at the Free Library,” says Shaw. “They represent folks working in universities. The academic system has a lot in common with workers in museums. They represent people who work for the City of Philadelphia and those connections to City Hall were important. We felt like they had the most relevant experience and represented the broadest cross-section of Philadelphia workers, which is really what the museum is.”
On its Cultural Workers United website, AFSCME says that it represents more cultural workers than any other union in the United States.
Sign Authorization Cards
At least 30 percent of employees who would form the union need to sign authorization cards that say they support the unionization effort and the affiliation with the selected union.
The goal here is to have much more support than 30 percent. That is what happened at the PMA, where a supermajority of eligible employees signed the authorization cards.
Voluntary Recognition or Election
The signed cards are used to petition a state or federal Labor Relations Board for recognition of the union.
Having a supermajority of employees sign cards is important because it sends a strong message to leadership that employees support the union. A goal is that the museum voluntarily recognizes the union. That’s what happened during a unionization effort at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Otherwise, museum leadership can request a vote of eligible employees.
The Labor Relations Board figures out who eligible employees are. “Eligible workers are typically folks who are not in a supervisory position and who do not make independent decisions about hiring and firing,” says Shaw.
Negotiate a Union Contract
If the union is voluntarily recognized or recognized through an election, the next step is the ultimate goal: negotiating a union contract. This is the document that will govern the relationship between the museum and the union, and allow employees to have a say in pay, benefits, and working conditions.
Where the PMA Union is in the Process
Museum leadership did not voluntarily recognize the union and a vote is currently being held through the end of July . The votes will be counted in early August. The vote is expected to succeed. If it does, the employees of the PMA will have created a more democratic workplace.
* * *
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.