Portland Museum of Art
The Portland Museum of Art will pay as much as $30,000 each to 14 former employees who accused the museum of unfair labor practices. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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More than a dozen former employees of the Portland Museum of Art are expected to receive financial settlements between $2,000 and $30,000 in a settlement of their claims that the museum committed unfair labor practices.

The former employees were gallery ambassadors, responsible for providing customer service, education, and exhibit interpretation at the museum, and were fired last year while the results of a vote to unionize were pending, the National Labor Relations Board found.

Employees voted 16-10 to unionize in April 2021 and join New York-based United Auto Workers Local 2110, the Technical, Office and Professional Union. The 14 gallery ambassadors were not among those eligible to vote.

“I’m very pleased that a settlement was worked out,” Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110 said. “I’m happy for all the people who will get some compensation for what they have been through, and I really, really hope that moving forward things evolve in a different way.”

The NLRB decision came nearly a year after the charges by the former gallery ambassadors, who were temporarily taken off the museum work schedule in December 2020 and permanently laid off in February 2021 as part of the museum’s reorganization of its staff.

According to NLRB documents obtained via a federal Freedom of Information Act request and a source familiar with the case, the regional office of the NLRB investigated the charges and the general counsel of the NLRB concluded there was sufficient evidence for a formal complaint against the PMA.

Museum officials, who declined to discuss the case, decided to settle rather than proceed with a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The case remains open until the PMA has fulfilled all of the requirements of the settlement agreement. These include payments to the former employees and notices to past and current employees about the settlement and the museum’s culpability.

After the layoffs, the PMA added five full-time, full-benefit positions to the gallery ambassador program, as well as seasonal positions, museum spokesperson Graeme Kennedy said last year.

One of the laid-off gallery ambassadors, Michaela Flint, tried to reapply for the new positions when they were posted and was not rehired for either a full- or part-time job.

“The museum told me I wasn’t qualified even though I worked over two years at the museum and held three positions during that time,” Flint said recently. “It was obvious that they were discriminating because I was a very vocal union supporter.”

The gallery ambassadors were in limbo between February and April 2021.

The museum had officially let them go, but the vote to unionize was on hold in a dispute over whether the gallery ambassadors could be union members. The PMA argued that the ambassadors were “security,” which meant they would have to form a separate union.

In April 2021, in a reversal of a regional decision, the NLRB said gallery ambassadors at the museum are security employees and therefore ineligible for membership in the bargaining unit.

As a result of the NLRB ruling, the former employees are expected to receive individual payouts ranging from $2,000-$30,000 this month to compensate for back pay, according to Rosenstein. 

Flint called her settlement “fair.” While she was not rehired by the museum, some of the laid-off gallery ambassadors have returned to work. Flint now works at a ceramic shop, where she said she is “treated well and happy.”

Rosenstein said “the museum wants to establish itself on a different footing and we’re glad to see that happen. We were able to reach an agreement that gratified our union and we’re hopeful moving forward that the relationship will change and evolve.”

The first contract between Local 2110 and the PMA was ratified last November after a few months of negotiations. Chelsea Farrell, a Connecticut-based organizer for the union, last week said bargaining “proceeded quickly and was amicable.”

“I don’t think it was magic that the bargaining proceeded as quickly as it did,” Farrell said. “It was because the workers in our union showed that we were willing to fight and push back against something that we thought was wrong.”

Rosenstein said she is optimistic about the relationship between the union and the museum moving forward. A shift in the relationship “happens often in unionization campaigns,” she said, noting that “employers fight it, then the parties come to terms.”

Jenny Ibsen is a Portland artist and freelance journalist.

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