Nearly 200 workers at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City filed a union petition last Thursday, January 27, citing COVID-19 safety and compensation among their top concerns. The staff is organizing with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 37, the city’s largest public-sector employee union, which already represented dozens of workers at the museum.
But the existing unit, Local 1559, was being “shredded by management,” said Jacklyn Grace Lacey, a senior museum specialist in African and Pacific Ethnology at AMNH for 11 years.
“We have only lost positions for years, not gained,” Lacey told Hyperallergic. “This new effort is meant to be a wall to wall expansion of the entire site.”
The new union will encompass 184 employees in a range of positions, from museum educators and post-doctoral fellows to curators and visitor services representatives. As reported by the website Patch, managerial employees, supervisors, and security guards are excluded from the unit. (The latter are represented by Local 1306, another branch of District Council 37.)
According to Lacey, however, the organizing effort has been met with resistance from leadership. The museum, she says, has hired Seyfarth Shaw, a law firm notorious for specializing in union avoidance, and is now seeking to terminate her position in a move she describes as part of “a concerted and well-documented anti-union effort.”
“The Museum has actively initiated termination proceedings against me due to my organizing and COVID safety whistleblowing — while I have been extremely ill with COVID,” Lacey said. “The Museum is incredibly anti-union and has been across its history and what they are doing to me as the most visible leader of this movement is something I am terrified they will do to others.”
A spokesperson for the museum told Hyperallergic that Seyfarth Shaw “is not representing the Museum in this union representation matter” and described Lacey’s claims as “blatantly untrue.”
“The American Museum of Natural History respects employees’ right to decide whether or not to be represented by a union,” the spokesperson said.
The pandemic has been a fraught period for the Upper West Side institution. In 2020, anticipating a steep budget deficit, the museum cut 200 full-time employees via a combination of layoffs and voluntary retirements, slashing about 20% of its staff of 1,100 and furloughing 250 others. Among the staff let go were approximately 20 of the local’s 90 members, Lacey said. And in August of that year, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against AMNH over the museum’s planned use of a coronavirus symptom tracking application that some workers felt encroached on their data privacy.
Most recently, AMNH has made headlines for what some viewed as a step in the right direction for the institution: the removal of a racist monument of Theodore Roosevelt from its entrance. But tribal leaders and activists have criticized the statue’s planned relocation to North Dakota, near land seized from Indigenous people.
Union members have also emphasized the importance of health protocols for on-site staff who have a higher likelihood of exposure to the virus.
“I think for all of us, top concerns were COVID safety, especially for visitor-facing staff, and issues of compensation and benefits,” Alexandra Walling, a fellow at AMNH, told Patch. “Many staff were on the extended furloughs at 80% of 60% pay for many months since the start of COVID.”
“All of this while the executive management was enriching itself enormously,” Lacey said. She noted that the museum has become wealthier in the last 12 months: Its most recent financial statements reveal, for instance, a $166 million increase in its endowment, which grew from $687,645,005 in June 2020 to $853,895,705 in June 2021.
“That is why there has never been more desire, determination, and bravery for this staff to finally speak out and to finally secure the labor rights to which they are legally entitled,” Lacey added.
With regards to COVID-19 protocols, the AMNH spokesperson said, “The Museum followed the advice and directives about COVID-19 prevention from the CDC, the State of New York and City of New York and we continue to follow all such advice.” He added, “We are pleased that almost all furloughed full-time staff members who wished to do so have returned to work.”