Graham Kilmer

Art Museum Workers Vote To Join Union

Milwaukee Art Museum employees now represented by International Brotherhood of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

By - Nov 16th, 2020 11:10 am
Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Workers at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) voted in favor of unionizing, joining the International Brotherhood of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 10 (IAMAW),

Employees went public with their attempt to organize a union in August. They were working with the support of IAMAW, which already represented the security guards at the museum. Nationally, the IAMAW represents nearly 600,000 members in manufacturing, aerospace, defense, airlines, transportation, woodworking, health care and other industries.

In September, Alex Hoekstra, an IAMAW business representative and organizer, told Urban Milwaukee that the unionization efforts were seeing strong support among the workers. But it was clear, he said, that the effort would ultimately be going to a National Labor Relations Board election, as the museum was not going to voluntarily recognize the union.

In a statement at that time, a MAM representative said “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.”

Ultimately, after a three-week election process whereby workers mailed in their ballots, 72% voted in favor of the union. The IAMAW is now the legal bargaining representative for 141 workers at the museum. 

The unionization was aimed at all non-management positions in the museum. Workers that can now be represented by the union include those working in  “Visitor Services, Food and Beverage, Education & Programs, Information Systems, Facilities and more,” IAMAW said in a statement.

When the workers first announced their unionization efforts in August, they explained they wanted a union because “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.”

Anne Wiberg, an organizer at the museum, released a statement saying “MAM workers overcame a year of tremendous obstacles to achieve this victory and claim their seat at the table.”

MAM workers have already promoted a vision of what they want their union to promote in contract negotiations. And the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped some of their priorities, they noted on their website “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 pandemic has clarified the goals of unionization for upstart organizing attempts in Milwaukee, as well as complicated efforts to unionize that started before the pandemic.

Colectivo Coffee workers are in the middle of a unionization attempt that stretches across hundreds of workers at company locations in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. And they’ve already run into resistance from the owners who have sent letters expressing diametric opposition to unionization, and hired expensive “union avoidance” specialists to meet with workers.

Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality, a labor union that represents workers at the Fiserv Forum, was in the process of another major organizing effort when the pandemic hit and layoffs squashed their efforts.

MAM is not the only, or first, museum in town to have workers represented by a union. Workers at the Milwaukee Public Museum are represented by AFSCME Local 526, and have been for years. In fact, they are currently in the middle of contract negotiations that have been going on since Fall 2019.

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