Graham Kilmer

Art Museum’s Workers Organizing a Union

Workers call for better pay, job security, and an end to the "culture of privilege."

By - Aug 10th, 2020 05:45 pm
Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The employees of the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) are attempting to organize a union.

They are working with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 10 (IAMAW) to organize.

IAMAW and the art museum have a long history together, said Alex Hoekstra, an IAMAW representative that’s been helping MAM employees organize. The union already represents the museum’s security guards. And just in the past week, the guards reached a tentative contract agreement with the museum.

Workers at the museum are attempting to organize all, or at least the vast majority, of non-management employees, Hoekstra said. Which could end up being more than 150 workers. For now, Hoesktra said he expects that management will be neutral and not interfere with the workers’ attempts to organize.

In a statement outlining their goals, the organizers wrote: “Worker voices at MAM are consistently sidelined and discounted. We want to change ‘take it or leave it’ pay, poor communication, and a culture of privilege.  With a union contract we hope to achieve a fair and transparent disciplinary process and, perhaps most importantly, ensure MAM will not take advantage of employees’ vulnerability during the ongoing pandemic.“

The union also listed social justice as one of its goals. “The vast majority of the museum’s employees of color work in the lowest paid jobs and were disproportionately impacted by the museum’s furlough,” the statement noted.  The workers seek to improve diversity, “especially in upper level, more highly paid positions.”

Since the pandemic began, economic insecurity has brought issues of labor practices and protections to the forefront for many. In Milwaukee, labor issues have flamed into public view recently with workers at Comet Cafe picketing and demanding severance. And a number of workers recently fired by Strauss Meatpacking in Franklin, after complaining about the lack of COVID-19 safety measures, have been picketing the plant.

Issues of “financial fairness” and “job security” are not new concerns for the workers at the museum. But public questions over the future of income inequality and social justice that have risen to the top of America’s national discussion, and the economic insecurity created by the pandemic, have had a role to play in “pushing this to a point of no return,” Hoekstra said.

Hoekstra said the organizing efforts by MAM employees are about getting a seat at the table. A press release from the burgeoning union said the workers “are central to carrying out the museum’s mission and are raising their voices for changes in working conditions that will make MAM a stronger, more transparent institution that is a true partner to the Milwaukee community.”

Organizers are working now to communicate with their fellow workers as to what the union could mean for them, Hoekstra said. “They deserve the opportunity to think about their future.”

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