Art Institute of Chicago employees continue unionizing efforts

Art Institute employees and supporters gather outside the museum to advocate for the unionization movement on Sept. 9, 2021. (Courtesy of art institute of chicago Workers United Facebook)

Art Institute employees and supporters gather outside the museum to advocate for the unionization movement on Sept. 9, 2021. (Courtesy of art institute of chicago Workers United Facebook)

Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) employees and supporters gathered outside the museum on Sept. 22 for a press conference to raise awareness for their unionization efforts. If successful, they will become the first major Chicago museum to form a union.

The Art Institute joins an increasing unionization effort among art museums nationwide. For instance, workers at The Guggenheim voted to form a union, along with three other major New York museums. Institutions across the nation are following suit as the popularity of unions continues to grow.

The pandemic brought on layoffs and furloughs, and AIC employees are requesting higher pay and better working conditions. The museum terminated 76 workers in 2020 and furloughed 109 employees this year. The accumulation of layoffs alongside the financial stress of the pandemic sparked the formation of the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU).

According to AICWU, “Unionized staff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, American Museum of Natural History, MIT, Chicago Public Library, Harvard, the Library of Congress, and many other cultural and educational institutions have been able to improve their wages, benefits, and rights at the workplace effectively through collective bargaining.”

Organizers announced their union campaign on Aug. 3, 2021 in a public letter signed by numerous employees. If successful, the union would represent over 300 non-management positions which include art installers, curators, custodians, librarians and retail workers.

While the movement initially started among AIC workers, workers from the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) would also be represented in the union. According to the Chicago Tribune, the school terminated 65 full-time positions, 12 part-time positions and 26 contract positions in 2020. Approximately 300 academic advisers, administrative assistants, mailroom employees and other staff would be included in the union.

Organizers collected signature cards from AIC and SAIC employees, where a majority voted to form a union. On Sept. 22, AICWU organizing committee members sent formal letters to the museum requesting they grant voluntary recognition for workers to form their union.

If museum management voluntarily recognizes their union, it will be certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — an independent federal agency that assures fair labor practices nationwide. Once certified, AIC management will be legally obligated to bargain a union contract agreed on by employees.

However, according to AICWU, the museums’ leadership hired anti-worker lawyers and PR consultants, who use union busting tactics like circulating anti-union sentiment.

“They’re using tactics like sending all-staff emails full of anti-union rhetoric, coaching management in anti-union talking points, misinforming employees that we’re ineligible for union representation, and stifling open forums when union supporters speak,” AICWU organizers wrote.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, U.S. employers collectively spend $340 million per year on union avoidance consultants.

Organizers and community members criticized the museum’s decision to hire the law firm of Cozen O’Connor and the PR management consultancy firm, Reputation Partners.

“We think museum patrons and school students and alumni would be upset to know this is happening at the same time that senior leadership told staff they’re projecting a budget deficit for the 2022 fiscal year,” said organizing committee member Myia Brown, assistant director of career and professional experience at SAIC.

The Sept. 22 conference ended with a march down Michigan Avenue, stopping in front of the museum. Organizers and supporters gathered among the steps between the iconic lion statues, which symbolize the union.

Prominent Chicago politicians attended the press conference to show their support including

State Senator Celina Villanueva, vice chair of the Illinois Senate Labor Committee; State Representative Marcus Evans, chairperson of the Illinois House of Representatives Labor & Commerce Committee and Alderwoman Sue Sadlowski-Garza, chair of the Chicago City Council Committee on Workforce Development.

Organizers continue to gather employee signatures to further encourage museum leadership to voluntarily recognize employees’ unionization efforts. If AIC and SAIC refuse to do so, employees will hold a formal union election. 

“We are making history together as AICWU,” Brown said. “It’s an amazing feeling to know that we are standing together, united, with a solid majority of our coworkers, in support of one another and our union.”