Another Viewpoint: Artists guild backs union drive at Portland Museum of Art

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The statewide board of the Union of Maine Visual Artists supports employees at the Portland Museum of Art in their desire and efforts to unionize and collectively bargain with PMA’s management.

If we have learned anything during this tumultuous year, the need to build institutions in which workers are part of decision-making is critically important. Historically, unionization and collective bargaining have been the most powerful forces for social and cultural progress in the United States and throughout the world. In organizing, the PMA employees (joining thousands of museum workers across the country) challenge institutional biases and inequalities through labor organization, at least as they perceive them.

The UMVA conducted interviews and reviewed Portland newspapers’ articles in writing this statement. The interviews included spokespersons for PMA management and representatives of the union organizing campaign. Also, we spoke with state Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, one of more than 40 state legislators who supported the rights of the workers to organize. Most significantly, PMA management and the employees each have something of importance to say.

Related stories: Portland Museum of Art employees seek to unionize, Portland Museum of Art officials push back against union drive

During the pandemic, PMA kept its staff on the payroll despite, according to PMA management, a $1.5 million loss due to COVID-19. The PMA speaks of its commitment to its staff from front desk to book shop, and its willingness to allow all staff members, known as “ambassadors,” to participate in a mail-in union vote. Director Mark Bessire points out, moreover, that PMA wages have been above Portland’s average wage even before the state and city mandated the higher wages. PMA Executive Assistant Jennifer Graves further drew a distinction between larger museums, where unions gained advantages for museum staff, and a smaller museum like PMA, where its staff already receives fair wages and benefits. 

Representatives of the AFL-CIO report that staff members were pressured not to join the union effort. Organizing Director Sarah Bigney McCabe asserts that PMA created a website “that was full of anti-union rhetoric and misinformation … meant to discourage them from organizing.”

Clearly, staff members have felt uncomfortable, some even intimidated, in meetings with PMA’s management. McCabe points out that “there is an inherent power dynamic at play. While the director may claim his tone was not intimidating, the workers feel intimidated by his words and actions.” Union representatives say that Boston’s Museum of Art management let their position be known on unionization, but “have not taken all the steps that Mark Bessire and the PMA management have taken (to counter unionizing efforts).” 

UMVA members are cultural workers. PMA staff – from security guards to curators – are cultural workers. The Portland museum depends on cultural workers for the work they exhibit. We expect that PMA and its staff members seeking to join UAW Local 2110, the Technical, Office and Professional Union, will allow the organizing and voting to take place without obstruction.

The UMVA statewide board and editors at the Maine Journal of Arts appeal, moreover, to Portland and Maine citizens to support the right of PMA staff to organize. Reducing institutional barriers to equalities requires openness to the full participation of workers. It is critical for society’s institutions to support the expansion of democratic participation. 

John Ripton of Kennebunkport is a member of the board of the Union of Maine Visual Artists. He writes on behalf of President William Hessian and the other UMVA directors.