The Milwaukee Art Museum (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The workers of the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) are the latest to join a recent wave of organizing in art institutions across the country. On Monday afternoon, more than 150 employees of the museum announced a campaign to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) District 10, which already represents MAM’s security guards.

“Today, other non-management MAM employees are seeking the same voice and protections that the security guards currently enjoy,” says a press release provided by IAMAW. The new union would include employees in the museum’s visitor services, food and beverage, education and programs, information systems, facilities, and other departments.

The workers cite salary disparities, a lack of diversity in upper level positions, poor communication, and a “culture of privilege” among their reasons for organizing. They also claim that the majority of the museum’s employees of color “work in the lowest paid jobs and were disproportionately impacted by the museum’s furlough” and that part-time workers, who do not receive health insurance, are often asked to work more than 40 hours a week.

According to the Milwaukee Business Journal, MAM received a $1.6 million loan through the Payment Protection Program in April. At the time, Director Marcelle Polednik told the publication that the museum had avoided any furloughs of its estimated 190 employees. In an e-mail to Hyperallergic, MAM confirmed that 37% of its staff was furloughed since then.

Regarding workers’ intent to unionize, a MAM spokesperson said:

The Milwaukee Art Museum is only now learning that a group of employees was discussing the possibility of forming a union. No one within this group has contacted management to discuss any relevant concerns. At the Museum, we continually work toward creating a safe, healthy and open environment for all our employees. We invite dialogue and encourage staff to address any issues with their supervisor or human resources.

On their website, MAM workers say they have been “organizing behind the scenes for months,” and are only now making their efforts public. Their announcement comes a week after employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted overwhelmingly in favor to form a wall-to-wall union, becoming one of the largest unionized museum workforces in the country.

“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 workers said in a statement.

Ryan Jann, who works in Visitor Services at MAM, believes it is more important than ever for workers to come together in solidarity.

“The issues we face at work impact us all,” he said in the release. “By putting our individual voices together into one voice, we can improve our working conditions and advocate for those who are most precarious among us.”

The museum’s security guards have been represented by IAMAW for over two decades. Last Wednesday, they secured a new tentative contract agreement with MAM that includes increased job security and wage increases, a spokesperson for IAMAW told Hyperallergic. Their contract ratification vote is scheduled for today.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...