The Portland Phoenix

Union accuses Portland Museum of Art of unfair labor practices

Almost two dozen Maine artists are speaking up in support of a union organizing effort at the Portland Museum of Art that is dragging into its seventh month.

Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, which hopes to represent the employees, also recently filed charges against the museum with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the PMA of engaging in unfair labor practices.

More than six months after 60 Portland Museum of Art workers filed a petition to join a New York-based union, the drive remains in limbo. The union recently filed charges accusing the museum of unfair labor practices. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

The museum reopened March 25 after closing in December in response to the rise in COVID-19 cases statewide. Union organizers have been handing out leaflets in front of the museum encouraging patrons and others to contact museum administrators in support of the union drive.

The flyers include a letter signed by 20 of the 25 artists featured in one of the PMA’s current exhibits, “Untitled 2020,” expressing their support for the union and urging museum administrators to rehire employees who were laid off early in the year. 

“Forming a union is the basic right of all workers, and the staff at PMA deserve the right to know the results of their election,” the letter states.

Michaela Flint, one of the union organizers and a former gallery ambassador who was laid off in January, said she and other organizers sought the artists’ support.

Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, said last week that her organization filed charges against the museum after the PMA laid off the workers without “notice (to) or negotiation” with the union.

“We believe this is also indicative of anti-union animus,” she said.

The NLRB has not released a decision on the PMA’s assertion that a third of museum employees could be disqualified from the unionization vote, and Rosenstein said there is no indication of when a decision will be announced.

If the NLRB finds Local 2110’s charges are valid, Rosenstein said, the board will issue a complaint against the museum and take the case to an administrative hearing.

The museum appealed a decision by the NLRB last November that 23 gallery ambassadors were eligible for union membership while security employees were not. The museum argued gallery ambassadors are also security employees, before laying them off.

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

With regard to the charges filed by Local 2110, Kennedy said via email March 29 there is “no merit” to the claims and called it a “typical tactic” employed by the union to “intimidate museums it has targeted for union organizing.”

He also said the museum strongly supports its artists in sharing their perspective on this issue, and union organizers in their choice to hand out the leaflets.

Kennedy said the museum has had “numerous staff members” come forward with concerns about being “left out” of union organizers’ plans, and that some feel the union has not “included them, responded to them, or acted in their interest.”

Kennedy also said the five full-time, full-benefit gallery ambassador positions that were created in the wake of the layoffs have now been filled, and former “on-call” gallery ambassadors were among those hired for those jobs.

The union election held last December, Kennedy said, was “fair and uninhibited,” but the votes have not been counted because of questions surrounding “federal law regarding whether certain members of the staff (involved in security functions) are eligible to be part of the proposed bargaining unit.”

The resolution of the issue by the NLRB, he added, is critical to the ongoing operations of the museum.

“Once that issue has been decided and the votes have been counted, the PMA will honor the decision of the majority of the staff members who are eligible to be part of the proposed bargaining unit,” Kennedy said. “Until then, the PMA encourages Local 2110 to stop its unwarranted and misguided attacks.”

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