The Portland Phoenix

Count expected in Portland Museum of Art union vote after labor board ruling

Union organizers at the Portland Museum of Art are not backing down after the National Labor Relations Board issued a decision in favor of museum management last Friday. 

In a reversal of a regional decision last November, the national board on April 16 said gallery ambassadors at the museum are security employees, and therefore ineligible for membership in the proposed union bargaining unit. Ballots cast by gallery ambassadors will not be counted in the vote to join New York-based UAW Local 2110, The Technical, Office and Professional Union.

Results of a union organizing campaign by some employees of the Portland Museum of Art are expected soon, after the National Labor Relations Board ruled museum gallery ambassadors are security personnel and therefore not eligible for union membership. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

The museum appealed the November decision, which was that gallery ambassadors qualified to join the union as non-security employees. Now that the appeal has been decided, ballots submitted by Dec. 21, 2020, can be counted.

Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein on Monday said the regional director of the labor board will decide when the ballots will be counted, and her organization has asked that they be counted as soon as possible.

“We don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be counted as early as this week,” Rosenstein said. 

She said she was surprised by the NLRB’s decision on gallery ambassadors because she thinks it is “factually wrong.”

“It’s not a good decision,” Rosenstein said. “A Republican subcommittee of the board made the determination.”

Union organizers led a public campaign to try to get the museum to drop its appeal, and last month 20 of the 25 local artists featured in the museum’s “Untitled 2020” show signed a letter urging museum administrators to do so. The letter was featured on a leaflet handed out to museum patrons and others after the museum’s recent reopening.

“We implore PMA leadership to do the right thing and to drop their Labor Board appeal so that the votes can be counted,” the letter stated.

Michaela Flint, a union organizer and former gallery ambassador who was laid off in January, on April 19 said the labor board decision will not stop her team’s efforts to unionize, which began last September

Flint said she and other organizers have stopped handing out leaflets in front of the museum for now, but are trying to come up with an alternative approach to inform the public about what is going on. 

“We are, in a way, trying to see the positives in what just happened,” Flint said. “Because of this appeal (being decided), this might lead to our votes finally being counted.”

Flint added that the exclusion of gallery ambassadors from the bargaining unit does not “stop unionization for all of the employees” and gallery ambassadors could file separately to join the union in the future.

She also said workers have received support for the union drive in recent weeks, including from museum visitors and members, some of whom have said they are “not renewing their membership because of what’s happening.”

When she heard about the appeal decision, Flint said, her first thought was that her group would just have to take “an alternative route.”

“I’m a visual person,” she said. “We’re not on the edge of a cliff, we’re just on a different path.”

The NLRB decision said the acting regional director erred in the original finding that gallery ambassadors are not security employees, since the ambassadors “are responsible for maintaining security of the artworks and safety of visitors and other employees on the Employer’s premises.”

Flint and several other part-time gallery ambassadors were laid off earlier this year when the museum added five full-time positions to the gallery ambassador program along with seasonal workers, which Graeme Kennedy, a museum spokesperson, said at the time was unrelated to the union drive.

In response to the recent decision, Kennedy said via email April 20 that once the ballots are counted, the museum will honor “the decision of the majority of staff members who are eligible to be represented by Local 2110.”

“No matter the results, we are committed to working with our staff in good faith and are excited about moving the museum into the future, together,” he said. 

Even if the union loses the election, Rosenstein said this week, workers could try to organize again, although they would have to wait a year. Many people, she said, “win elections on second ballots.”

Security guards and gallery ambassadors are entitled to organize separately, she added, and would not have to wait a year to mount another campaign.

For now, Rosenstein said, her organization wants the NLRB to count the ballots as soon as possible.

“We’re looking forward to the results of the ballot count and we anticipate that a majority will vote for the union,” she said. “We will be anxious to get to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract.”

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