In the wake of a difficult year for museums around the world along with numerous stories of toxic work environments at major museums, museum workers are coming together to advocate for their rights as workers. Over the past year, three major US museums have seen a push for worker unionization; the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and now the Art Institute of Chicago. The Guggenheim and Whitney have both moved forward with unionization, joining the New Museum who unionized in 2019.
In a letter written on August 3, 2021, sixty staff members at the Art Institute of Chicago cited their concerns about workloads and wages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of the past year, over 200 workers were laid off or furloughed by the major museum located in downtown Chicago, causing much more work and responsibility placed on those who were kept on staff. The letter called out the system of hierarchy used throughout the museum and called for the sharing of power throughout all levels of staff. The group, going by the name ‘Art Institute of Chicago Workers United‘, are asking for better wages and benefits, a harassment-free workplace, and transparency around compensation and advancement. In a field where topics such as compensation and advancement are often hidden, transparency within the organization also allows for greater transparency across the entire field.
This push for unionization is coming largely from the front-facing staff such as ticketing, security, and retail who are often underpaid and overworked, especially now during the pandemic. Museums have undergone scrutiny in recent years for unpaid internships and contract work that allows them to get free or discounted labor. The lack of living wages has also made entry into the museum field difficult or impossible for students and young professionals from lower-income backgrounds or who need a steady income to provide for themselves and their families. These people are often disproportionately BIPOC, adding to the severe lack of diversity in museum staff particularly in higher level positions.
Unionization in museums is often met with resistance, but support for museum workers to unionize is growing as more groups form around the country. Many fears that unionization efforts would fade as many organizers at museums were laid off during the pandemic, but the furloughs and layoffs only increased interest in unionization and workers’ rights. In a time when museums are undergoing scrutiny over workplace environments and harassment, inequality in wages, and lack of diversity, unionization is allowing museum staff to have a greater say in their employment and allow them to place greater accountability on the museum leadership.
To read more about museum workers unionization, check out Bloomberg Law’s July article on Museum Union Efforts in the wake of the Pandemic: Bloomberg Law: July 13, 2021.