Several formerly furloughed employees at the Portland Museum of Art have been laid off in the midst of a union drive that has now lasted more than four months. Museum officials claim the layoffs are unrelated to workers' attempt to unionize. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Several Portland Museum of Art employees have been laid off as a dispute between management and workers escalates over a unionization drive that began more than four months ago.

The layoffs came as museum officials and more than 60 employees await a decision from the National Labor Relations Board on whether a third of museum employees could be disqualified from the unionization vote.

Workers were supposed to learn the results of mail-in balloting by Dec. 22, 2020, to determine their eligibility to join Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers.

One of the laid-off workers said approximately a dozen or more employees lost their jobs.

Graeme Kennedy, PMA director of strategic communications and public relations, said via email Monday the layoffs were “completely unrelated” to the union election.

A union leader disagreed.

Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, on Sunday said she thinks the layoffs are a “union-busting” maneuver by the museum, targeting employees who were making “basically minimum wage.”

“I think they’re just trying to get out from under unionization, the fact that they’re probably going to lose on this decision, just trying to get rid of these positions,” Rosenstein said. “It’s really disgusting.”

The NLRB ruled last November that 23 PMA “gallery ambassadors” would be eligible for union membership, while seven security officers did not qualify to join the union. The museum appealed the decision, challenging the NLRB director’s ruling that gallery ambassadors are not security employees.

Gallery ambassadors are among the workers that have now been laid off.

The Washington, D.C.-based NLRB has not indicated when a decision on the appeal may be issued. 

Workers initially filed a petition with the NLRB on Sept. 23, 2020, to join Local 2110. The PMA said in October while it is not anti-union, it does not believe a union is right for the museum.

Local 2110, the Technical, Office and Professional Union, is based in New York City and has more than 5,000 members. It represents workers at law firms, art and educational 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.

Kennedy said Monday that staff changes were made after the creation of five full-time, full-benefit positions within the museum’s Gallery Ambassador Program.

The decision to add the full-time positions, he said, was the result of staff feedback to “enhance the quality of the positions” available in the GAP Program, and to create more opportunities for upward mobility at PMA.

Along with the new positions, Kennedy said the museum has implemented a temporary seasonal staffing model that will allow it to hire temporary workers and end an “on-call” employee designation.

The new category of full-time staff will also be able to work remotely.

“The decision to improve our temporary hiring practices by moving to a robust seasonal model reflects the realities of an open museum in a tourism-based market,” he said. “Any suggestion that these decisions are related to a union election held last December or aimed at pro-union staff is misinformed, misguided, unfortunate, and irresponsible.”

Rosenstein, however, said the museum is “rearranging the furniture” in terms of staffing, and said the laid-off workers were described as part-time when they were furloughed in December, and are now being referred to as “on-call” by PMA.

“They’re running around trying to say this is part of their diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion efforts because they created a few full-time positions,” she said, “when in fact they have just laid off the lowest-paid people at the museum.”

Rosenstein added her union believes it won the election, although the ballots have not been counted because of the museum’s appeal. She said that raises a question about the museum’s legal obligation to bargain with the union before making such a staffing change.

She said Local 2110 will be examining whether the layoff decision was a “potential violation of law” by PMA, or just what she called a “reprehensible act.”

Rosenstein also said she thinks the museum’s “only hope” of winning the election would have been what she called a “Trump (labor) board” in Washington, but now the “wind is blowing a different way” in the nation’s capital. 

Ultimately, she said, she wants PMA to know the union is committed to the cause and will persist “until there is a union in place at PMA.” 

She said unionization at cultural institutions is becoming more common nationwide, and she thinks PMA needs to recognize the trend and “deal with its own workers across the table instead of trying to thwart them at every turn.”

“People organize at PMA not because they’re against PMA. People organize because they actually care about the institution,” Rosenstein said. “(They) care about the work they do and want to make it a more sustainable place for workers to be able to stay.”