Guests are greeted by Portland Museum of Art employee as they enter the museum. About two-thirds of PMA's employees have filed a petition to unionize. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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Approximately 60 employees of the Portland Museum of Art filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board Sept. 23 to join Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers.

They represent nearly two-thirds of the museum’s 100-person staff.

“We have an overwhelming amount of support coming from fellow workers because they all want better for the museum,” Michaela Flint, a PMA gallery ambassador, said the day after the filing. “We just want to support our museum and our communities, and mostly we want to support our workers.” 

Local 2110, the Technical, Office and Professional Union, which is based predominantly in the New York City area, has more than 5,000 members. It represents workers at law firms, art, and education institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, New York Historical Society, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the ACLU, Columbia University, and New York University. 

Michaela Flint, a gallery ambassador at the Portland Museum of Art, is one of 60 museum employees who hope to join UAW Local 2110, the Technical, Office and Professional Union. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

“It’s astounding how often it’s the case that workers are organizing because they want to do a great job,” said Maida Rosenstein, a lifelong organizer and president of Local 2110. “They want fair conditions so they can have a work-life that is both respected and has meaning.”

Flint has worked the front of the house at the PMA for a year, in the gift shop, overseeing galleries, and welcoming guests. She said working at the 7 Congress Square museum has been one of the best jobs she’s held.

“I have close access to the community (as a front-of-house staff member), so I can be a voice for the community and bring those voices to the table,” said Flint, who also works as an artist. “Hopefully that will progress the museum, too.” 

PMA employees hope to create a direct line of communication where the collective input of the workers is weighed in decision-making processes, said Aaron Berger, a museum security guard who has been involved with organizing the union. 

Filing is the first step to unionization, Rosenstein said. 

After the museum responds to the petition the National Labor Relations Board will determine if the union is qualified to form in accordance with the National Labor Relations Act. 

If the group is deemed eligible, employees will vote to determine if there is a majority who support unionization. If so, negotiations will begin on a collective bargaining agreement with the museum that typically addresses wages, hours, vacation time, insurance, and safety practices, among other areas.

Graeme Kennedy, PMA director of strategic communications and public relations, said “the museum is aware of the filing.” Kennedy declined further comment “in order to respect the process.”

The process should only take “a matter of weeks,” Rosenstein said, although voting takes longer because of mail-in balloting during the coronavirus pandemic, as opposed to the usual in-person voting procedure.

For now, the drive to unionize is concentrating on gaining a seat at the table – a collective voice for the museum workers.

“What’s important to us is where we are on the priorities list in terms of discussing the museum,” Berger, an eight-year employee of the PMA, said. “When we talk about compensation, when does that conversation happen? At the beginning or after other decisions have already been made?”

Though Berger said he is not sure of everyone’s pay rate, the front-facing museum staffers are often part-time employees with no benefits, earning $13-$14 an hour. These workers include security guards and gallery ambassadors, but the breadth of staff in the union drive also includes registrar, data, philanthropy, and curatorial positions.

The Portland union drive, unlike some others, includes part-time employees. It does not include people in management positions. The PMA would be one of several art institutions across the country where employees have recently unionized.

Earlier this month, employees of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston filed a petition to join Local 2110, and workers at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis followed suit. 

If a union drive is successful, the Portland Museum of Art at 7 Congress Square would be one of several art institutions across the nation to organize within the past year. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

In August, 89 percent of eligible workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and last year, employees of New York’s The New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, formed unions.

“There are really strong inequalities because museums – and PMA is no exception – often will rely on extremely low-paid workers to staff their institution,” Rosenstein said. “Whether it’s underpaid clerical and education workers, frontline staff, or part-time hourly work, it is extremely common.”

Art institutions often have substantial endowments, highly paid executive teams, and wealthy donors and board members, which creates a stark contrast with many workers who maintain the space, she said.

“A lot of the problems are not necessarily the museum’s fault, it’s just that there’s not a structure to have these conversations,” Berger said. And the pandemic drew greater attention to pre-existing issues, such as creating healthy work schedules in the decision to return to in-person work.

Although the museum closed to visitors this spring and has since reopened, none of the staff at PMA were furloughed throughout the pandemic.

“We all share the values of the institution and believe a union is one of the best ways to realize those,” explained Whitney Stanley, who has worked at the PMA for two years as associate registrar and collection data manager. “We all love the museum and this is how we’re demonstrating our dedication to it.”

The museum’s “Art for All” mission states a commitment to be an “open, accessible, inclusive, and welcoming museum for all,” which union organizers said aligns with their goals in creating a union. 

Plans to unionize began early last year, they said, and the conversation continued to take place regularly on Zoom throughout the pandemic. The process brought coworkers together in new ways. 

“Workers are talking more, sharing experiences, and finding common threads between ourselves,” Berger said. “It is also about feeling empowered and expending trust and having it returned in these relationships, and that has been a transformative thing that I hope we can impart to the whole institution.”

Flint said the Black Lives Matter movement, in tandem with the pandemic, helped shape the discourse surrounding inequalities; it’s a topic “on the back of many people’s lives,” she said that addresses collective power and democratic voice.

“In a way, a museum is a community center,” Flint added. “And by having equality within workers, it definitely inspires everything that comes in and outside the museum as well.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.