A sign on the door of The Portland Museum of Art informs patrons that the museum galleries are closed until further notice because of rising COVID-19 cases in the region. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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The Portland Museum of Art wants the National Labor Relations Board to disqualify about a third of museum employees from a vote on unionization.

More than 60 PMA employees were supposed to learn the results of mail-in balloting by Dec. 22 to determine their eligibility to join Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers. 

Ballots were received by the NLRB by Dec. 21, and employees were “hopeful” there would be wide support for unionization, according to Michaela Flint, a PMA gallery ambassador who has been active in organizing for the union.

“I’m so excited that people are supportive of a mail-in ballot, and even the judge felt that way as well,” said Flint, referring to a request by the PMA, rejected by the NLRB on Nov. 9, to require an in-person election. “It was very easy, just one question, and of course I voted yes. I had to sign the envelope and on the same day put it in the mailbox.”

The Portland Museum of Art wants the National Labor Relations Board to disqualify its “gallery ambassadors” from voting on unionization. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

The Nov. 9 NLRB decision also ruled that 23 “gallery ambassadors” like Flint are not “security” employees, and therefore eligible for union membership. Seven security officers do not qualify to join the union.

On Nov. 23, however, the PMA claimed the regional NLRB director’s decision “erred in finding that gallery ambassadors do not interchange with security associates.” The museum’s appeal has delayed the election results.

“Gallery Associates are also part of (the security) team, and are similarly responsible for safeguarding the art, visitors, staff, and museum,” Graeme Kennedy, director of strategic communications and public relations for PMA, said in a prepared statement. “We await the outcome of the election and look forward to continuing to partner with our staff toward the PMA’s mission rooted in diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.” 

The unionization process began in September and can take only a few weeks if things go smoothly, according to Maida Rosenstein, President of New York-based Local 2110.

“This is again an example, I think, that the museum is going the wrong direction, having filed this request for review,” Rosenstein said on Dec. 28.

In November, 40 Maine state legislators signed a letter in support of the PMA employees, with Rep. Mike Sylvester, a Democrat from Portland, as the lead signature. The Union of Maine Visual Artists followed with a public letter of support signed by its board and supporting members. 

The union employees initially filed to join Local 2110 in late September. In October the organizers accused the museum of “union-busting tactics,” citing anti-union rhetoric in staff meetings and emails and a password-protected website presenting selective facts.    

By creating the gallery ambassador positions in August, the museum “wanted to be more welcoming to visitors and the community, in opposition to policing,” Rosenstein said. “But obviously it’s ironic that those same classifications are those that they want to prevent from unionizing.” 

The bargaining unit, which comprises the museum workers eligible to join the union, represents more than two-thirds of the 100-person museum staff, with positions ranging from gallery ambassadors to curatorial positions to teaching specialists. 

Excluding gallery ambassadors from the bargaining unit would shrink the roughly 60-person group by more than a third.

The Nov. 23 request for review is an appeal to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C., and until the board addresses the appeal, the ballots will remain uncounted.

“We hoped that this would be dealt with before the actual vote, but there is a backlog due to employer appeals, and the museum is able to take advantage of the delay,” Rosenstein said. 

The NLRB often dismisses cases challenging decisions by its regional offices without further investigation, she added.

“We’re hoping that would happen here,” Rosenstein said.

In the meantime, the PMA has been closed to the public since December. Gallery ambassadors were notified they are not scheduled to work during January, and while they were not formally furloughed, there is no definite return-to-work date.

The closure in December was unrelated to the union vote, according to Kennedy, and was made “due to the surge in (COVID-19) cases in our region.”

If the ballot count had gone forward and the union had won, the museum would have been obligated to bargain over the terms of bringing staff back to work, Rosenstein said.

Gallery ambassadors are among the lowest-paid PMA employees, she said.

“It’s disappointing that our count has been delayed, especially during a pandemic when so many of our colleagues are losing hours and won’t be returning to work indefinitely,” added Whitney Stanley, who has worked for the PMA for two years as associate registrar and collection data manager. Stanley remains scheduled to work and has continued working partially from home and in-person since the Dec. 8 closure.

In response to the closure, members of the bargaining unit are organizing training with the Maine AFL-CIO on applying for unemployment, and the potential union members are launching a mutual aid fund to raise money for furloughed staff. The group is also coordinating a grocery delivery system and a rideshare program. 

“After the news about January, I was feeling depressed because for a moment I felt that I lost my job, but I’m feeling hopeful now that the union has been helpful and offered support,” Flint, the gallery ambassador, said.

The aid fund will hopefully continue to support staff after they are rehired as well, she added.

“I feel very fortunate to not need the aid,” Stanley said, “and I feel like it’s my responsibility to help facilitate that support to colleagues who are losing money due to the pandemic.”

For now, union organizers and PMA management must wait for a response from Washington before learning the vote results, with no timeline in sight. The gallery ambassadors, meanwhile, whose ability to join the union remains in question, face an indefinite period of unemployment.

“The pandemic has made it very clear that people need to have organization and structure to protect themselves,” Rosenstein said. “Given how everything has evolved in this country, the museum should see itself as being on the same side as the labor movement instead of in opposition.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.

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