Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Brief Guide to Unionizing at The New Children’s Museum

Given the burst of recent activity surrounding unionization at museums, I thought it would be important to hear from museum folks directly involved in the process.

Fortunately, Cody Machado and Alisa Miller from the New Children's Museum were kind enough to share this description of their unionization experiences with ExhibiTricks readers:

Our journey towards unionization didn’t start with bold declarations or dramatic action. It started with small conversations between friends, talking about the issues we faced in our jobs and how they manifested in our personal lives. Wages had stagnated. We all had second jobs but rent was a struggle every month. Prep time for programs declined while more responsibility was piled onto our plates and the high turnover rate put even more pressure on those who remained. Nothing would change when these issues were brought to management, and the divide in understanding between the floor team and the highest levels seemed to grow wider.

The more we talked the more it became obvious that we had to do something to force a change. We had heard about the growing movement of unionized museums and saw the chance to create true equity in our own workplace. We needed a seat at the table, a parallel structure that would put us on equal footing, and forming a union seemed to be the only way to achieve that.

A small group of us started meeting at coffee shops and peoples’ houses to lay out a game plan. There is no dedicated museum workers union, so we looked for one with deep roots in our community. It was important that we find representatives who would provide us with the guidance we needed without taking the process out of our hands, and who would work in partnership with the Museum.

It was through a family member that we were put in contact with IBEW Local 465. We met with Anabel Arauz, the organizer at our local, who understood instantly where we were coming from - that we cared deeply about our workplace, and that we had a genuine desire to ensure the Museum could continue to grow without sacrificing the wellbeing of its workers. After just a few meetings we knew IBEW was our home.

With a representative body now standing behind us, we brought more people into the conversation and collected signatures. To hold a union election, you first must file signed interest cards from at least 30% of your potential bargaining unit with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). So we considered the scope of our union. Should it be limited to frontline staff, or did we want to include as many positions as possible?

We believed in the value of union representation for all workers, and so reached out to people in positions that were eligible to be included - essentially, those without hiring or firing power and without access to secure information. We knew we were asking our coworkers to take a big step with us and held weekly meetings to address concerns and build consensus.

After hearing about the challenges faced by other colleagues, we were certain that forming a union was the right step. With a union, we would have more say in our workplace than had ever been possible without one. We could advocate for fair wages and transparency at all levels. We could ensure that all work was treated as valuable, essential, and dignified.

 NCM Union bargaining committee members at IBEW Local 465 Union Hall.
L to R: Charlie Randall, Cody Machado, Nate Fairman, Anabel Arauz,
Tim Dixon, Hannah Mykel, Jill Grant, Jessica McPeak, Alisa Miller

As the unit grew, we prepared for what might happen after filing. We hoped for voluntary recognition, meaning that the Museum would acknowledge our union without an election. Knowing that most businesses don’t do this, we also went over typical union-busting talking points. We knew that if we were told to get something in writing from the union, that that would happen when we had negotiated a fair contract. If someone said that everything would be on the table during negotiations, we knew that bargaining begins from the status quo and not from zero. If we were told that unions weren’t right for nonprofits, we already knew innately that all workers deserve a voice and representation in their workplace. With this knowledge, we could illuminate and contradict anti-union arguments before they took root.

Once we had enough signatures, we filed with the NLRB and within a month we had a vote. That month between filing and the election is a wild ride, and it is critical that you face it together. We continued to meet, talk with our reps, and reiterate the fact that the union is us. Workers are the heart and soul of the union and the Museum.

And then we won! Our election passed with 75% of the vote. IBEW Local 465 can represent us and bargain with the Museum on our behalf. Members of our bargaining unit will now work alongside IBEW representatives to negotiate a fair and equitable contract.

Since our victory at the ballot box, we haven’t slowed down, selecting people for our bargaining committee and keeping everyone informed along the way. We try to be as open with the public as we are with our own unit in an effort to build industry-wide solidarity and contribute to the movement within our field.

We sincerely look forward to January, when we will finally take our seat at the table alongside management and begin negotiations. We have always worked closely with those not in the bargaining unit, and the value we place on those relationships remains unchanged. Together we will build a path towards a better future for The New Children’s Museum, and hopefully for the museum field as a whole.

A note: the whole process can seem daunting at first, especially if you’re new to unions (like us). Luckily, there are resources already available for those who are interested in learning more! The Unions for All spreadsheet from Art + Museum Transparency is a great place to start.

NCM Union members and supporters at Little Dame Shop in San Diego


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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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