Aaron Berger, a security guard at the Portland Museum of Art for eight years, is one of the employees hoping to organize a 70-person union at the museum. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
advertisementSmiley face

Management of the Portland Museum of Art is fighting an attempt by workers to organize a union.

Organizers, who filed a petition in September with the National Labor Relations Board and initially took an amicable approach to their campaign, had hoped the museum managers would “remain neutral” and let the nearly 70 eligible employees decide whether they should join the union.

But in an Oct. 16 press release, they accused management of  “union-busting tactics.” The PMA responded on Oct. 19 that it is not anti-union, but “does not believe that a union is right for our museum.”

“Unfortunately, management is attempting to interfere in the union election process by intimidating workers and employing other anti-worker tactics pulled straight from the corporate union-busting playbook,” the organizers’ statement said. The election will determine if there is majority support for unionization.  

A vote on a union at the Portland Museum of Art faces opposition from museum management, who are advocating for an in-person election. Union organizers hope for an election conducted by mail-in ballots. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Organizers claimed the museum created a password-protected website with selective fact-checking information about unions, and have used more frequent all-staff emails and meetings to control the narrative of the unionization process, according to organizers and Maida Rosenstein, president of United Auto Workers Local 2110, the Technical, Office and Professional Union, which represents more than 5,000 workers across New York City and New England.

“The PMA wants to be sure that all staff members fully understand the pros and cons of unionization before they vote,” Mark Bessire, PMA director, said in the museum’s Oct. 19 statement.

The statement also described union organizers as making “misleading claims about the museum’s intentions and certain developments about the union election.”

PMA officials did not respond to a request for comments for this report.

Employee Meghan Quigley Graham, who has worked in the museum field for more than 10 years, said she was disappointed by the museum’s response to its workers.

“I consider my role in the PMA my identity and I’ve invested a lot in the field,” said Quigley Graham, who is a teaching and learning specialist at the PMA and has a master’s degree in museum education. 

“It’s sad to hear that we as a staff are using our voices to really say that this is the direction that we want to go in, and it’s just been really disheartening to hear that that’s been discounted and devalued and hasn’t been respected,” she said.

The growing dispute between union organizers and museum management was exacerbated by complications brought to the table during an Oct. 15 NLRB hearing.

According to the National Labor Relations Act, security officers should not be part of the same bargaining unit as the remainder of the staff, which could reduce the size of the bargaining unit by nearly half. 

The bargaining unit, which comprises the museum workers eligible to join the union, represents nearly 70 workers in positions ranging from gallery ambassadors to curatorial positions to teaching specialists, and 32 of those members could be excluded from the bargaining unit if they are deemed to be part of “security.”

Since August, the job titles that were previously categorized as security officers, gallery officers, and visitor museum experiences at the PMA became new categories of “security associates” and “gallery ambassadors.”

Now many of the front-facing staff’s roles incorporate some element of security, which is a point the museum added during the hearing. That decision could exclude almost half of the bargaining unit. 

“It feels weird because part of the reasoning they had for the reorganization was that they want less police in the galleries,” said Aaron Berger, an organizer of the union and security guard at the PMA for eight years. “They were drawing connections to social unrest and wanted to be less reactive, and more proactive, less policing.”

The gallery ambassadors include “some of the lowest-paid workers,” earning $13-$14 an hour, according to Berger, who said the NLRB rules end up “targeting most of the diverse and underpaid staff” of the museum.

The second complication is whether to conduct the election in person or via mail-in ballots. 

While union organizers are hoping for mail-in ballots, the PMA advocated for an in-person vote that would occur on a day when the museum is closed. Voting in person could make it harder for part-time staff, those who have second jobs, or the few staff members who have not worked in person at the museum during the coronavirus pandemic to participate, Rosenstein argued.

In its Oct. 19 statement, the PMA said it is “not interested in making voting harder for our staff” and “want everyone who is eligible to vote to do so.”

Since the pandemic began, mail-in ballots have been the method for elections in the New England region of the NLRB, according to Rosenstein.

“It seems like a manipulation to try to reduce the size of the unit and the possible size of any union, delay an election (from) happening, and dissuade people from voting by having an in-person vote on a day that the museum is not open,” she said.

Under the Trump Administration, the NLRB has pressured its regional offices to hold in-person elections and has indefinitely halted at least four mail-in elections across the country since August, according to a Sept. 24 article by Bloomberg Law.

“Unfortunately, (anti-union campaigns) are all too common,” Rosenstein said, noting that it is less common in the museum sector. “And this really speaks to the need of having a union – when your employer feels that they need to go to the lengths to manipulate the situation in order to prevent you from having a voice in your conditions, it speaks to the need for a union.”

Early last month, The New York Times published a compilation of first-hand experiences of employees at the New Museum in New York City, which is also represented by Local 2110. They claimed unhealthy working conditions, ranging from sexual harassment and low pay, and unethical conditions, such as refabricating artworks without the artists’ consent. The New Museum publicly denied many of these accounts. 

When comparing the PMA to other cultural institutions, the museum noted in its press release that “the PMA is already competitive or further along than Local 2110’s other museum and cultural clients.”

“There’s this movement in a lot of museums to unionize and there have been so many moments of challenging inherent power dynamics and structures, that sometimes have been present for centuries,” said Quigley Graham, acknowledging that much of the inequalities exist at institutional levels.  

As of late September, employees at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston filed a petition to join Local 2110 with a plan to vote by mail-in election.

A decision from the NLRB regarding who is eligible to be in the PMA bargaining unit and how the election will be conducted is expected this week, according to Rosenstein.

Until the vote happens, museum employees have time to decide whether they will vote in favor of joining the union. Quigley Graham said she is “hopeful” the gallery ambassadors will be included in the union and will participate in a mail-in election.

“I see this process as a way to work better with our museum leadership and our colleagues,” she said Sunday. “And, the PMA has the opportunity to be ahead of the movement and lead the way for other museums to truly be inclusive from the inside out.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.