The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (photo by Joshua White; JWPictures / © Academy Museum Foundation; courtesy Academy Museum)

In a statement released on Thursday, May 26, workers at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles announced their intention to form a union with AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The announcement, from a group calling itself Academy Museum Workers United (AMWU), comes a week after employees at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) finally secured a collective bargaining agreement with museum management more than two years after they began unionization efforts

“We are thrilled to be forming our union, Academy Museum Workers United, because it is time those who work in preserving and celebrating art, in this case the art of cinema, have a voice on the job,” Sarah Stearn, a retail sales associate at the museum, said in a statement. “All workers deserve respect and a say in our working conditions and the direction of our work. For this museum to be successful, its workers must be safe and respected.”

Academy Museum Workers United (image courtesy AMWU)

If successful, the union would represent over 200 museum workers across all departments — except security and management — including curatorial, operations, education, publications, theater operations, facilities, and visitor experience. 

The Academy Museum opened last fall as an institution focused on celebrating the pinnacle of Hollywood moviemaking as well as showcasing diverse stories and filmmakers previously excluded from the cinematic canon. Plans had been in the works for decades before the official inauguration, however, with some departments like curatorial formed years earlier.

Some of the grievances that spurred the unionization effort include wage discrepancies, allegedly inadequate responses to COVID-19 outbreaks, and staff being asked to do work outside of their job description, according to Yin Kyi, a field coordinator with AFSCME and a lead organizer on the unionization campaign with AMWU.

“We’re a young institution, and it still feels like that start-up energy where we were doing multiple jobs,” Academy Museum Assistant Curator J. Raúl Guzmán told Hyperallergic. “That mentality has continued and we need to change that.”

The next step for the AMWU is to get a majority of union-eligible employees to sign union cards, which they will submit to the National Labor Relations Board for an election unless the museum recognizes the union voluntarily.

“We recognize this is a very important choice and believe it is in the best interest of staff to be fully informed when making a decision,” an Academy Museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic via email. “As such, we have recommended to the union that the National Labor Relations Board commence a secret ballot vote as a next step. We look forward to proceeding with conversations with this group.”

The Academy Museum is in a unique position, located at the intersection of Hollywood, where union labor plays a massive role, and the museum world, where a labor movement has been building over the past few years to address longstanding institutional inequities. The Cultural Workers United (CWU) movement, as AFSCME has dubbed their campaign, has taken hold at museums like MOCA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the defunct Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles, whose founders abruptly shut down just days after employees announced their plans to unionize. AFSCME represents 10,000 museum workers and 25,000 library workers across the country.

“We’re generally seeing a wave of cultural workers come together at so many museums and different film institutions, like Film Forum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the Anthology Film Archives,” Guzmán said. “The artform we champion is created by union labor.”

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Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.

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