A group of Seattle Art Museum visitor services employees who are leading union organizing at the institution (photo Amber Cortes/Hyperallergic)

SEATTLE — For almost three weeks in a row during the month of February, a group of Seattle Art Museum (SAM) workers known as Visitor Service Officers (VSOs) who are seeking to unionize would send out an all-staff email — one per day — documenting the museum’s continued refusal to voluntarily recognize their union.

“Hi folks! This is the 15th update from the SAM VSO union,” begins an email sent on February 15. “Why is an institution that exists for the public good so unwilling to give its frontline workers a small amount of power, a seat at the negotiation table, and meet their basic needs?”

The daily updates were part of a collective action on behalf of the organizers, who are trying to unionize for reasons that include low wages, retirement benefit cuts, and what they view as lax COVID-19 guidelines at top-tier donor events.

It was issues like these, union organizer Josh Davis told Hyperallergic, that “really kept driving home a feeling of powerlessness in the structure of the museum.”

For example, in a September 30 email sent to security management, one group of VSOs expressed concerns over COVID safety at private events.

At a wedding last fall, the VSOs had to deal with guests whom they described as “passionate anti-maskers.” When trying to communicate the rules, the VSOs said they were “yelled at, threatened, touched, and had people get up in our faces — all while unmasked.”

Workers also cited benefit cuts and job security as among their top motivations for unionizing. In 2020, the museum laid off 76 staff, primarily part-time workers and many VSOs, despite receiving $4.8 million in PPP loans. (A representative from SAM told Hyperallergic that the majority of those employees were “temporarily furloughed” and were offered their jobs back; as of January 2021, the spokesperson added, “only 13 part-time or full-time employees were separated permanently.”) 

And a 10% pay cut taken by management that year was restored and paid back — though the cuts to retirement benefits for frontline staff were not. 

SAM’s spokesperson said that while the employer contributions have been paused due to the pandemic, “it remains a top priority” to reinstate them.

Despite these promises, Davis says the benefit and staff cuts showed how “things can just be taken away, all at the museum’s whim.” 

“All those things happening made us think, nothing is set in stone here,” he said.

Workers cited benefit cuts and job security as among their top motivations for unionizing. (photo Amber Cortes/Hyperallergic)

Though a group of SAM VSOs had been organizing for months, a union flyer found in a security control room made management aware of their efforts.

In a December 17 email to VSOs, SAM Director Amada Cruz stated the museum would be “completely and thoroughly neutral” when it came to their position on a union. But in January, after around 75% of SAM’s VSO guards signed authorization cards to unionize with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (UPAT) Local 116, museum leaders said their hands were tied because of a 1947 labor law preventing “mixed guard unions” — unions that represent both security and other types of workers — from being certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Because the museum refused to voluntarily recognize UPAT Local 116, the SAM VSOs have decided to go independent — this time including only the security department to avoid legal headaches. The union would include up to 60 museum guards and VSO workers.

On January 27, the museum announced a department-wide restructuring for frontline staff that included more stable schedules for part-time VSOs and an increase in the number of full-time Security Officers from 29 to 44 current full-time positions.

But Davis says the positions are not contractually binding, meaning the institution could technically choose not to hire another full-time employee if one leaves.

They also got pay raises, bringing the hourly pay for a “level one” VSO to $20.44, which Davis says is appreciated, but “the city is still unbelievably expensive and the cost of living is just speeding off into the sunset at hyperspeed, every single year.” (Minimum wage in Seattle is currently $17.25 an hour.)

Organizers at SAM say they’ve also experienced “aggressive union-busting tactics” since trying to unionize, including targeted retaliation against union organizers, a hostile work environment, and arbitrary schedule changes that have resulted in compensation decreases for some workers.

The SAM VSO union would include up to 60 museum guards and VSO workers. (screenshot by Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

One organizer, Aselya Keyes, who worked as a VSO at SAM for the past five years, said the museum placed her on paid leave on March 23 pending an ongoing investigation — but she wasn’t told what the investigation was about.

“It was just super vague. I didn’t know what I was being investigated for,” Keyes said in an interview with Hyperallergic.

In a subsequent meeting with SAM human resources staff member Gerard Philpotts and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Draeger, Keyes was asked if she knew why she was being investigated. 

“It felt like they wanted me to incriminate myself, like a trap or something,” she continued.

What followed was a litany of complaints against Keyes, some predicated on incidents that took place months ago, such as her putting hot sauce in a co-worker’s drink and hiding a bikini in another’s locker. The organizer says the drink was made as a joke, and she didn’t force anyone else to drink it. The bikini she had left on the table in the break room, a gift from a friend for an upcoming trip that didn’t fit. Someone else had put it in a co-worker’s locker as a prank, she claims. 

“Now, all of a sudden, these trivial incidents or occurrences in the past are such a serious matter,” Keyes told Hyperallergic. She was also told she slams her locker too loudly. “I was like, you are gonna fire me because I slam my locker?”

Keyes, the only POC among the main union organizers, said in the past she has experienced incidents of sexual harassment and racism in the workplace from both patrons and coworkers, but when she brought these issues to HR, she was ignored. (With respect to Keyes’s allegations, a SAM spokesperson declined to comment further, citing pending litigation, but added that “[the museum’s] actions were in full compliance with the law.”)

Keyes also says museum management knew she had been publicly vocal about the union before firing her. 

That same week, on March 29, SAM HR sent an email to the VSO department denying suggestions made in union flyers that the museum would retaliate against organizing leaders.

“Whether the organizing employees are the leaders you want or deserve is up to you,” the email says, urging workers to ask themselves a series of questions about the organizers’ “commitment to SAM and its success” and whether they possess “good judgment.”

Then, in an April 4 meeting, museum officials asked Keyes to prove she was not breaching the confidentiality of the investigation and discussing it with co-workers by providing them with screenshots of her Signal chats, some of which included union activity, she said.

Keyes also alleges that she tried to ask for a union witness to exercise her Weingarten rights — which guarantee workers’ rights to representation during investigatory interviews — before the meeting, but the museum denied her request.

She was fired two days later.

Keyes believes her dismissal occurring right before the union election, which may take place as soon as next week, is hardly a coincidence. “It was obviously to get me off the floor, to stop me from organizing,” Keyes told Hyperallergic. 

“And this has been so psychologically, mentally, and emotionally damaging to me, that I’m not going to be the same person when I do come back,” she added. 

An Instagram post by Decolonize SAM, a collective of museum staffers protesting the museum’s response to Seattle’s unhoused community (screenshot by Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Keyes, who has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the NLRB, wants her job back. And she is still organizing from the sidelines and going to union meetings. 

“I haven’t gone anywhere,” she said. “I’ve always been an advocate and an organizer.” Before her involvement with the union, Keyes was a part of Decolonize SAM, a collective of SAM staffers who organized a boycott of the museum in response to its recent policies and “hostile architecture” against the local unhoused community.

A representative from SAM told Hyperallergic that “the decision to terminate the staff member is in response to serious workplace misconduct that is in violation of our employee code of conduct,” and that it was “not related to this individual’s involvement in the unionization effort.”

If SAM VSO workers unionize, they will join thousands of museum workers in a recent upsurge of labor organizing across the country.

“I feel like frontline staff are almost always the least paid, the most disregarded, but at the same time, they are keeping the museum alive,” says Keyes.

Davis thinks the pandemic gave arts workers, like many others, space to think about how they were compensated for their time.

“There’s a foregone conclusion that it should be worth it to work at a lower wage, because we’re in a museum,” Davis says. “And we are very happy to work in the arts. But people still need to be financially supported to live in these big cities that are often where museums are.”

“And I think our hope is to be able to do both.”

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Amber Cortes

Amber Cortes is a writer and journalist based in Seattle. Find her other work at: www.youneverknowradio.com.