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Art Institute of Chicago employees gain majority support for union

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Backed by majority support from employees, organizers at the Art Institute of Chicago announced Wednesday they are asking the museum to voluntarily recognize the first labor union at the iconic cultural institution.

Union organizers began collecting signature cards from about 640 employees at the Art Institute and the School of the Art Institute last month, and after gaining a “solid majority,” delivered letters Wednesday to leadership at the museum and school requesting recognition without a formal vote.

The Art Institute of Chicago Workers United would be the first major museum union in Chicago.

“We haven’t had a seat at the table, but now we’re making our voices heard through our union,” Sheila Majumdar, 35, an editor in the museum’s publications department and a member of the union organizing committee, said at a noontime rally on the steps of the museum on South Michigan Avenue. “And now that our coworkers have spoken, we’re inviting leadership of the museum and the school to take a step back from their anti-worker behavior, and we hope they will join us in the spirit of collaboration and mutual respect.”

The employees are seeking higher wages and better working conditions, which were exacerbated by more than 200 layoffs and furloughs during the pandemic. The union would represent about 340 nonmanagement positions at the museum, including art installers, curators, custodians, librarians and retail workers. It would also represent about 300 academic advisers, administrative assistants, mailroom employees and other staff at the nearby school.

The National Labor Relations Board will certify a union to represent workers in collective bargaining if the union is backed by a majority of employees. An employer may voluntarily recognize the union when presented with evidence, such as a majority of employees signing authorization cards. If not, a formal election will be held.

“As we have said from the beginning, we fully respect our employees’ right to decide whether or not they want to join a union,” the Art Institute said in an email Wednesday. “This is an important decision that should be left up to each employee to make individually. Should a sufficient number of employees determine 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 would be part of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 10,000 workers at 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 U.S., with a collection of nearly 300,000 works of art, including such famous paintings as “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat and “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper.

Annual attendance is about 1.5 million, but the numbers were down dramatically during the pandemic, with the Art Institute closed for more than half the year in 2020 and operating at reduced capacity for much of this year.

The Art Institute laid off 76 people between April and June 2020, and furloughed 109 employees this year between January and April. There are currently about 600 employees at the museum.

Beyond employee layoffs, more than 100 docents — volunteer educators who help visitors navigate the museum — were dismissed in September. The docents received a letter from Veronica Stein, the Woman’s Board executive director of learning and public engagement, announcing the end of the “current iteration” of the 60-year-old docent program.

“As a civic institution, we acknowledge our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility to participate,” said Stein, who was hired by the museum in March. “Rather than refresh our current program, systems, and processes, we feel that now is the time to rebuild our program from the ground up.”

The museum plans to develop a small pool of part-time paid museum educators, with current volunteers “invited to apply,” Stein said in the Sept. 3 letter. The volunteer docents, many of whom have worked for years, will receive complimentary memberships to the Art Institute through 2023.

“It was very disappointing,” said Alice Huff, of Chicago, a museum docent since 1996.

As a volunteer docent, Huff gave tours about 20 days a year and participated in museum training to stay up to speed on new exhibits. Being cut loose amid the dismantling of the program left her and other docents feeling “unappreciated and unrecognized” for their time and effort over the years, she said.

Huff said she does not plan to apply for the part-time paid position.

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