Graham Kilmer

Milwaukee Art Museum Won’t Recognize Union

Management refuses to recognize a worker supported union, forcing an NLRB election.

By - Sep 9th, 2020 01:16 pm
Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

At the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), an effort by employees to organize a union is heading to an election with the National Labor Review Board.

According to the union, the museum recently cancelled a meeting with union representatives and announced to staff that management would not voluntarily recognize a union.

Organizations can choose to voluntarily recognize unions, usually when there is evidence that a majority of employees want one. This usually takes the form of authorization cards, which employees sign to authorize a union to act as their bargaining representative. However, even if a majority of workers sign authorization cards, owners can still refuse to recognize a union, forcing an NLRB secret-ballot election.

Alex Hoekstra, a business representative and organizer with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) District 10, told Urban Milwaukee, “The campaign is moving quickly, with impressive support from the workers.” IAMAW is helping the museum employees organize their union. It already represents the security guards at the museum, and has for years.

Organizers went public with their campaign to organize more than 150 non-management MAM employees in early August. The union filed for an election with the NLRB last week following the museum’s announcement concerning voluntary recognition.

“MAM management refused to consider voluntary recognition regardless of support,” he said. “Therefore our only path to recognition is the NLRB.” It will take at least 45 days to complete the election, he said.

In a response to Urban Milwaukee, the museum said, “an election process is the fairest and most appropriate way to comprehensively account for all of our employees’ voices surrounding a decision of this magnitude. We believe our culture and current collaborative relationship best serve our employees and the Museum. While we do not feel unionization is in our collective best interests, we fully respect the right of our employees to decide to unionize or not and will follow the well-established process provided for in the National Labor Relations Act.”

When MAM employees announced their drive to unionize, they released a statement laying out some of the issues pushing them. In it, they said, “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 precariousness of employment during a global pandemic has been surfacing in the form of labor organizing in recent months. At Comet Cafe, a group of former employees organized to negotiate with the owners, and protest the owner’s decision to shut the restaurant down. And employees with the popular local coffee shop chain, Colectivo Coffee, have also gone public with a campaign to organize a union.

The employees at MAM are clear about how the pandemic has shaped some of their concerns. And they want to make social justice a part of their bargaining platform. They said they want to see greater diversity in “upper level, more highly paid positions.” And they noted that the majority of employees of color at the museum work in lower-wage positions that were “disproportionately impacted by the museum’s furlough” during the pandemic.

The museum workers have gained support from a number of local politicians, unions, artists and art institutions. County Executive David Crowley and Mayor Tom Barrett, both endorsed the unionization effort. As did state representatives Jonathan Brostoff and Christine Sinicki, and Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic.

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