Graham Kilmer

Will New Public Museum Recognize Union?

AFSCME Local 526 raises concerns about this and about museum officials' comments.

By - Aug 22nd, 2022 05:57 pm

Rendering of new museum viewed from the west side of N. 6th St.

The private non-profit that operates the Milwaukee Public Museum, MPM Inc., has offered squishy answers when asked if it will honor existing union contracts at the planned new $240 million museum, while the union contends that museum officials are legally compelled to do so.

In March, the Milwaukee County Board was considering legislation, which it ultimately passed, giving the county authority to issue $45 million in debt to help pay for the new $240 million museum, likely to be called the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture.

When the board was deliberating over the proposal, members of AFSCME Local 526, which represents nearly 100 workers at the museum, raised concerns about what they thought were indications by MPM Inc. that there would not be recognition of the union at the new museum.

A new legal entity, Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture Inc., has been incorporated to run the new museum. This entity will serve the function that MPM Inc. does at the current museum, and by all indications, will be composed of many of the same people as MPM Inc. Ellen Censky, president and CEO of MPM Inc., is the registered agent for this new 501(c)(3) non-profit.

When the board was considering the museum funding proposal, Jacob Flom, vice president and chief union steward for AFSCME Local 526, provided a written comment to the board urging the board “to consider the interests of the dedicated MPM employees and retirees by asking MPM’s successor to continue to honor their commitments to their employees.”

Flom said employees “have asked that MPM’s successor recognize their union, AFSCME Local 526, and maintain the existing union contracts and their 60 years of established precedent.”

Censky laid out the position of museum leadership at the time, stating, “MPM and its successor will recognize whatever union the employees choose, be that the current union, we will recognize that, it’s just that I cannot commit to something that’s not my decision.”

Pam Fendt, president of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, told the board she thought Censky was incorrect when she said there was nothing she could do now, adding there should be no need for re-certification of the union.

Jaclyn Kelly, local 526 president, told Urban Milwaukee in March that this language from Censky appears to indicate that the intention of MPM leadership was not to recognize the union and existing labor contracts, but to make members of local 526 reconstitute the union at the new facility through a unionization campaign. “This new company should not be used as some excuse to union bust,” Kelly said in March.

There is legal precedent and federal labor law covering union recognition when one entity succeeds another as an employer. The primary legal doctrine concerning this area of labor law is often referred to as the ‘successorship doctrine’ which stems from the Supreme Court Case NLRB v. Burns International Security Services, Inc.

Under this doctrine, if it is “perfectly clear” that a new business or organization will hire a majority of a union’s bargaining unit as employees to do the same job, it is considered a “successor employer” and it must honor the contract negotiated by the previous employer until new terms can be negotiated.

In June,  MPM Inc. held an all-staff meeting, during which Censky told employees that they plan to rehire them at the new museum. Upon hearing this, Kelly told Urban Milwaukee in July, union members felt it was clearer than ever that the new museum would recognize their union and labor contract. “But we do want to pursue something in writing, even on top of what the law would require,” Kelly told Urban Milwaukee, as the union still has not heard in certain terms how MPM officials will view the union once they legally become Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture officials.

When asked if it planned to recognize local 526 for members of the bargaining unit rehired at the new museum, a spokesperson for MPM Inc. said this: “On background, as MPM has said previously, the Museum will recognize whichever union its employees choose for representation.”

This is the language that troubled the union in the past, because, as Kelly said, “The workers at MPM have already made their choice.”

The union’s current contract does have language regarding successorship, Kelly said. But it will begin negotiating a new labor agreement with MPM Inc. at the end of this year, and Kelly said that may be an opportunity for the union to clearly outline arrangements for successorship at the new museum.

Update: This story was updated to reflect that Urban Milwaukee did receive comment from MPM prior to publication.

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