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Frye Art Museum.
Frye Art Museum.

Staffers at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum Unionize and Demand Recognition

The security staff of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Washington, has announced the formation of the Art Workers Union (AWU). Working with a local branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), they hope to bargain for benefits such as health care, public transit passes, equitable wages, and other changes in working conditions.

Matthew Finnell, a labor organizer with the Seattle DSA, told the Seattle Times that more than 90 percent of Frye security guards agreed to participate in a formal election process monitored by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is scheduled for later this month. (Eleven of the twelve staff security guards have joined the union.) Representatives from the NLRB and the Frye have also scheduled a meeting to hear the museum’s response to the unionization efforts.

“We have taken this step because we love the Frye, but if things don’t change, we’ll no longer be able to afford to work there,” the AWU wrote on their website. “Most of us have degrees, but the majority of us are stuck making minimum wage, at part-time hours, with no benefits. . . . We need a union so that we can have a seat at the table and a voice on the job. We are calling on the CEO and Board of Trustees to voluntarily recognize the Art Workers Union today and begin bargaining with us.”

Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant, city council candidate Shaun Scott, and a crowd of around forty people gathered at the museum entrance last Friday to demand union recognition from the institution. Sawant voiced her support for the AWU and promised that her office would support their fight for “dignity, good pay, and respect at work, and for their right to housing affordability in Seattle.”

Sawant also connected the workers’ struggles to issues of rent control, affordable housing, and corporate taxes. In 2017, the Frye sold a parking lot for $11.4 million to Westbank Corporation, a Vancouver-based real estate development company that plans to build twin luxury apartment towers in the lot at market rate. (Museum spokesperson Ingrid Langston told the Seattle Times that proceeds from the sale “have been reinvested in support of the museum’s endowment so that we can uphold our mission to always be free.”)

The formation of the AWU comes as cultural workers across the country, particularly in New York, are increasing organizing activity. Last month, the Brooklyn Academy of Music moved to join Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers), which staffers at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Museum of Modern Art belong to and the New Museum voted to join in January.

In a statement released by the Frye, the museum said it “celebrates the extraordinary talents and efforts of our entire staff and recognizes the important role they each play. . . . We look forward to beginning a discussion with them to understand their position.”