The American Museum of Natural History (photo by Travis Wise via Travis Wise/Flickr)

Workers at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) elected to unionize by an 85% margin, votes tallied yesterday confirmed. They will join the Local 1559 chapter of DC 37, New York’s largest union representing public employees. That chapter already represents some 78 positions at the museum, but organizing leaders estimate that the latest vote will bring membership numbers among museum workers up to over 200.

Workers that will join the union include those in the education department, professional staff, and visitor services, as well as postdoctoral scientists and graduate student workers. Alexandra Walling, a PhD student at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the AMNH, said that the fight wasn’t quite over, though.

“Ellen Futter, the president of the museum, sent out an email yesterday talking about how we’re all one community,” she told Hyperallergic. “But it’s hard for me to take that at face value, because the museum is still fighting to exclude many job titles — including my own as a graduate student worker.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a museum spokesperson said: “The American Museum of Natural History is committed to continuing to work with all staff, union and non-union, to strengthen our community and address any concerns. DC 37 already represents some groups of Museum employees, and we look forward to working productively with them to negotiate a contract for this new bargaining unit.”  

The workers elected to unionize by an 85% margin (photo Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

The vote count is a victorious moment for organizers and workers who have been awaiting results for almost two months. Workers voted between March 24 and April 6, but a pipe allegedly burst at the National Labor Relations Board’s office, spraying asbestos over the papers and delaying the tabulation of the votes.

According to several AMNH workers, the seeds of labor organizing at the museum were sown early in the pandemic when many workers were laid off or furloughed, with their pay slashed for months. In May 2020, the museum downsized its full-time staff by 20% and furloughed an additional 250 workers; salaries of those who remained were indefinitely frozen. Meanwhile, some workers felt that their safety was not a priority to management.

“People who for example sold tickets were getting screamed at by people who didn’t like to wear masks. And the museum was not providing them with safety, with good masks,” Polly Shulman, a staff writer at the museum, told Hyperallergic. But when the economy slowly began to recover, Walling added, “The higher ups in the administration saw their pay go back up, and their bonuses be restored. But for the regular workers in the education department or in visitor services, there wasn’t any attempt to make those workers whole, for the months they did without full pay.”

Jacklyn Grace Lacey, a senior museum specialist of African and Pacific Ethnology at the time, was a key figure in the push for unionization.

“We were in the middle of this massive de-professionalization of the staff at the museum that was happening right under our noses, but we didn’t have the language or the capacity to fully understand or contextualize it,” Lacey, who was terminated last year, told Hyperallergic. She hypothesizes that “the layoffs were in part to help stave off organizing efforts.”

“The museum keeps wages so stagnant and so low that it’s really unsurvivable in New York City unless someone comes from wealth, therefore undercutting DEI initiatives at the museum,” Lacey continued. “All of this started to track, where we have a very core group of white, elite, senior management at the museum, like the president and the director of the museum who control the power and the purse strings.”

But these shared concerns helped build solidarity among workers at an institution she called “siloed” and lacking in any “real core museum community.” By mid-2021, she was talking to other workers at the museum and conducting informal exit interviews with disgruntled staff members who were quitting.

Shulman echoed Lacey’s observation that management at AMNH was hostile to unionization efforts, pointing out that the museum “was spending zillions of dollars on union-busting law firms, putting out these emails to try to trick people into thinking that if they voted for the union, they would lose their health insurance benefits.” (The AMNH, both workers said, hired Proskauer Rose LLP, the same firm that has represented Columbia University and the New York Times in the face of recent organizing.)

Another longtime unionized employee at the museum, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed dissatisfaction with the leadership’s communication style. “This museum is an extremely hierarchical institution,” he said. “We have very little contact with what the top administration is thinking or planning, and it tends to breed distrust. When they need a million dollars, they have no compunction about laying off a bunch of people in order to balance the budget.”

“Take it or leave it — that’s basically the attitude from leadership,” the employee added. He explained that because the AMNH is a public-private partnership, workers are public employees and cannot strike or picket by state law. As a result, management often is not responsive to input from workers. He acknowledged that museum funding is precarious and often leaves leadership with minimal range of motion, but criticized that “cooperative” solutions were “anathema” to the museum’s culture.

“The museum is a wonderful institution that is full of dinosaurs,” Shulman said. “I love my job. I think it’s really important. But if my colleagues need me to work hard to make sure that management isn’t taking advantage of them and to help make sure that everyone gets safe, non-exploitative working conditions and isn’t exploited, I’m going to step in again.”

Over text, Shulman clarified that she did not want it to seem like she was slacking off during the organizing drive: “I just want to go back to doing my job during the day and writing novels in my free time.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.