Employees at the Portland Museum of Art are petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for union representation, citing low pay and lack of job security, and accusing museum management of union-busting tactics. The museum management says it is not anti-union, but it doesn’t believe a union “is right for our museum.”

A simmering dispute, exacerbated by the pandemic, burst into public view Tuesday when museum employees who are seeking to join the Technical, Office and Professional Union, UAW Local 2110 out of New York, issued a news release saying museum management contested the eligibility of some employees to join the bargaining unit and is attempting to force an unsafe in-person election instead of allowing employees to vote by mail. The union president accused museum management of mimicking the tactics of Republican leaders who are making it harder for people to vote in the presidential election.

“We have requested a mail-in ballot election and the museum is opposed. They are pushing for in-person,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110.

The museum responded with its own news release that quoted director Mark Bessire as saying, “We have taken unprecedented steps to protect our staff through an unforeseen global pandemic and economic meltdown, but unfortunately, we have been painted with broad strokes as an adversary online and in public by union organizers. The PMA wants to be sure that all staff members fully understand the pros and cons of unionization before they vote.”

In its statement, museum management said that a union “is not the best path for making progress at the museum because, informed by feedback, discussion, and input from our staff over the last several years, we have built the foundation for a stronger and more inclusive culture at the PMA.”

Rosenstein said her union has been in discussion with PMA employees, including curators, registrars, education staff and others, for months as part of a national wave of organizing efforts at museums and cultural institutions. The union asked museum management to remain neutral during the discussions, “but they came out swinging.  They have made it absolutely clear they are opposing the unionization,” she said. “There have been a lot of concerns about inequities that exist at the museum, low compensation rates, the precarity of the work, with front-facing staff earning low hourly rates and some of them part time. Even the full-time employees, their pay rates are low. There are concerns about the sustainability of employment, and if anything the pandemic has exacerbated the situation.”

Employees are seeking better pay and job security, and are pursuing representation with the Technical, Office and Professional Union, Local 2110, an amalgamated union of more than 3,000 workers in universities, museums and other office settings. Museum workers said management has hindered their ability to organize through intimidation and “other anti-worker tactics pulled straight from the corporate union busting playbook.”

Rosenstein said the museum attempted to exclude many workers from the bargaining unit, including 29 gallery ambassadors and security associates. Rosenstein described those workers “as front-facing staff who are most at risk and also the lowest-paid employees,” with some earning $14 an hour.

The National Labor Relations Board held a hearing Oct. 15 about the eligibility of those employees, and Rosenstein hopes for a ruling within two weeks.

The museum employs about 100 people and had no staff reductions during the three-month pandemic closure, museum spokesman Graeme Kennedy said.

The effort of Portland Museum of Art employees to seek union representation is part of a national trend. Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted to join a union in August, and employees of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston petitioned for a union election in September. Artnet, an online art-world and art news resource, reported at least five museums moved to unionize in 2019, driven by a desire for diversity and economic concerns.

Meredith Wiemer, a PMA registrar, said members of the PMA museum team use staff meetings to influence discussion about the union and isolate and target staff members who speak in favor of the union. “These tactics we’re seeing at the PMA classically align with anti-union campaigns,” she said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that this is the approach leadership is taking amidst a nationwide trend of workers at cultural institutions unionizing. This is the second museum I’ve worked at where workers have organized for a more democratic and sustainable workplace.”

Wiemer, who is a new PMA employee, said in a phone interview that she is concerned about a lack of transparency around pay and equity at the museum, and the “disheartening” response of management to the unionization effort has further emboldened employees to pursue representation.

She said there was solidarity across departments in the effort. “Unionization will create equity and transparency and a more powerful voice for the workers,” she said.

The museum said it is not anti-union and that “(u)nions serve an important function in some workplaces, but the PMA does not believe that a union is right for our museum. The PMA has always put its staff first, as evidenced by retaining and compensating all staff throughout our closure period and continuing to retain as many positions as possible through an uncertain time.”

The museum also accused union organizers of making misleading claims about the union election. “The National Labor Relations Board favors in-person voting when possible and we agree – willing and ready to hold the election on the dates and times that the union organizers have suggested following their strict guidelines for safety and compliance. The museum is open to the public and the majority of staff are regularly onsite,” the museum said in the news release. “We are not interested in making voting harder for our staff. We want everyone who is eligible to vote to do so.”

In its response, the museum also said the NLRB questioned if federal law allowed employees with security responsibilities to be part of the same bargaining unit as other employees.

Maia Crandall, the museum’s human resources director, said in a statement, “While museums across the country and throughout the world have laid off their employees en masse, the PMA chose another path based on our values of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. The museum’s commitment to these institutional values has led to direct, in-depth, and collaborative partnerships with staff at every level, enabling the PMA to respond to staff input in numerous ways – from improved and new policies for base pay, vacation time, and paid parental leave to paid sick leave, additional paid holidays, and annual raises.”

Whitney Stanley, a two-year PMA employee, acknowledged those gains and said the unionization effort ensures they will continue. “What a union would do for us is allow us to preserve those benefits and continue negotiating with management about what works and what could work better,” she said. “I love the museum and want to make sure it continues to be a sustainable place to work, not just for myself but for anyone else who might come after me.”


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