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The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Raed Mansour/Flickr.
The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Raed Mansour/Flickr.

More US Museum Staffers Unionize as Pandemic Drags On; Institutions Increase Incentives

As the Covid-19 crisis looks set to enter its third year, US museum workers, many of whose jobs were precarious or attached to low wages even prior to the pandemic, continue to push for unionization in an effort to gain some measure of job security and ensure safe working conditions. Staff at the Art Institute of Chicago this week concluded a process begun last summer and voted overwhelmingly to unionize, with 144 in favor, twenty-two against, and twenty votes “not counted due to management challenges.” The employees will join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, becoming the first at a major Chicago institution to do so.

Meanwhile, in New York, employees of the Jewish Museum are seeking to join the Technical, Office, and Professional Union Local 2110 UAW. Should they be successful in their efforts, art handlers, curators, educators, and development staff would be among those included, as well as public-facing staff including retail and visitor experience workers. The museum—which in addition to struggling with Covid-related closures and safety measures was in summer 2020 roiled by allegations of a lack of workplace diversity—has said that it will “will respectfully engage in any process that transpires.”

The uncertainty faced by museum workers is now being felt by institutions themselves, thanks to the pandemic’s relentless grind. Seeking to mitigate staffing shortages brought on by the recent surge of the Omicron variant, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would increase the pay of its museum guards, raising the starting wage from $15.51 per hour, just above New York State’s minimum wage, to $16.50. The institution negotiated the raise with Local 1503 of District Council 37, which represents the guards.

Given the aforementioned precarity associated with many museum jobs and the multiple arts-institution staff unionizations taking place across the country in recent years, organization seems likely to continue apace. With Covid-19 in the mix, ravaging staff numbers both in terms of ill employees calling in sick and in regard to hiring issues, with fewer people hungry for public-facing jobs perceived as risky to personal health, many museums may find themselves following in the footsteps of the Met and raising wages in the coming months.