ROBERT CHANNICK Chicago Tribune
Backed by majority employee support, organizers at the Art Institute of Chicago announced Wednesday they are asking the museum to voluntarily recognize the iconic cultural institution’s first union.
Union organizers began collecting signature cards from about 640 Art Institute and School of the Art Institute employees last month, and after securing a “solid majority,” delivered letters to leaders on Wednesday. of the museum and the school asking for recognition without a formal vote.
The Art Institute of Chicago Workers United would be Chicago’s first major museum union.
“We did not take a seat at the table, but now we are making our voice heard through our union,” said Sheila Majumdar, 35, editor in the museum’s publications department and member of the union organizing committee, at a press conference. noon gathering on the steps of the museum on South Michigan Avenue. “And now that our colleagues have spoken, we invite the museum and school leaders to take a step back from their anti-worker behavior, and we hope that they will join us in a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect.”
Employees are seeking higher wages and better working conditions, which have been exacerbated by more than 200 layoffs and leaves during the pandemic. The union would represent around 340 non-management positions at the museum, including art installers, curators, custodians, librarians and retail workers. He would also represent around 300 educational advisers, administrative assistants, mailroom workers and other staff from the nearby school.
The National Labor Relations Board will certify a union to represent workers in collective bargaining if the union is supported by a majority of employees. An employer may voluntarily recognize the union when presenting evidence, such as a majority of employees signing authorization cards. Otherwise, a formal election will take place.
“As we have said from the start, we fully respect the right of our employees to decide whether or not they wish to join a union,” the Art Institute said in an email on Wednesday. âThis is an important decision that should be left to each employee to make individually. If a sufficient number of employees determine that seeking union representation is in their best interest, the museum would follow a well-established and fair process under the National Labor Relations Board. “
The union is said to be part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 10,000 workers in 91 museums nationwide and more than 25,000 library workers at 275 public and private libraries, including the Chicago Public Library. .
In recent years, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles have formed unions with AFSCME.
Founded in 1879, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States, with a collection of nearly 300,000 works of art, including famous paintings like ” American Gothic “by Grant Wood,” A Sunday on La Grande Jatte “by Georges Seurat and” Nighthawks “by Edward Hopper.
Annual attendance is around 1.5 million, but numbers have dropped dramatically during the pandemic, with the Art Institute closed for more than half of the year in 2020 and operating at reduced capacity for much of that. year.
The Art Institute laid off 76 people between April and June 2020 and put 109 employees on leave this year between January and April. There are currently around 600 employees at the museum.
Beyond employee layoffs, more than 100 docents – volunteer educators who help visitors navigate the museum – were laid off in September. The docents received a letter from Veronica Stein, Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement for the Woman’s Board, announcing the end of the âcurrent iterationâ of the 60-year-old docent program.
âAs a civic institution, we recognize our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program in a way that enables community members of all income levels to participate, to address issues of equity in class and income and not requiring financial flexibility to participate, âsaid Stein, who was hired by the museum in March. âRather than refreshing our current program, systems and processes, we believe now is the time to rebuild our program from scratch. “
The museum plans to develop a small group of paid part-time museum educators, with current volunteers “invited to apply,” Stein said in the September 3 letter. Volunteer docents, many of whom have worked for years, will receive free Art Institute memberships until 2023.
âIt was very disappointing,â said Alice Huff, of Chicago, a museum guide since 1996.
As a volunteer guide, Huff organized tours around 20 days a year and participated in training the museum to keep abreast of new exhibits. Being let loose in the midst of the dismantling of the program has left her and the other docents feeling “unappreciated and unrecognized” for their time and effort over the years, she said.
Huff said she did not plan to apply for the paid part-time position.
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