Seattle Art Museum guards try to unionize, but it hasn’t been easy

A group of Seattle Art Museum visitor services employees who lead labor organizing at the institution (photo Amber Cortes/Hyperallergic)

SEATTLE — For nearly three straight weeks during February, a group of Seattle Art Museum (SAM) workers known as Visitor Services Officers (VSOs) seeking to unionize are reportedly emailing to all staff — one a day — documenting the museum’s continued refusal to voluntarily acknowledge their union.

“Hi folks! This is the 15th update from the SAM VSO union,” begins an email sent on Feb. 15. “Why is an institution that exists for the public good so unwilling to give to its frontline workers some power, a seat at the negotiating table?, and provide for their basic needs?”

The daily updates were part of a class action on behalf of organizers, who are trying to unionize for reasons including low wages, pension benefit cuts and what they see as lax COVID-19 guidelines. at prominent donor events.

It’s issues like these, union organizer Josh Davis told Hyperallergic, that “really instilled a sense of helplessness in the structure of the museum.”

For example, in a September 30 email to security management, a VSO group raised concerns about COVID security at private events.

At a wedding last fall, the VSOs had to deal with guests they called “passionate anti-maskers.” In trying to communicate the rules, the VSOs said they were ‘shouted, threatened, touched and people stood up in front of us – while being unmasked’.

Workers also cited benefit cuts and job security among their main motivations for joining a union. In 2020, the museum laid off 76 employees, mostly part-timers and many VSOs, despite securing $4.8 million in PPP loans. (A SAM representative told Hyperallergic that the majority of those employees were “temporarily furloughed” and offered their jobs; as of January 2021, the spokesperson added, “only 13 part-time or part-time employees full-time have been separated permanently”. )

And a 10% pay cut taken by management that year has been reinstated and repaid – although pension benefit cuts for frontline staff have not.

The SAM spokesperson said that while employer contributions have been suspended due to the pandemic, “it remains a top priority” to reinstate them.

Despite those promises, Davis says the benefits and staff cuts have shown how “things can just be taken away, all at the whim of the museum.”

“All these things that are going on got us thinking, nothing is set in stone here,” he said.

Workers cited benefit cuts and job security among their main motivations for joining a union. (photo Amber Cortes/Hyperallergic)

Although a group of SAM VSOs had been organizing for months, a union flyer found in a security control room informed management of their efforts.

In a Dec. 17 email to the VSOs, SAM director Amada Cruz said the museum would be “completely and utterly neutral” regarding its position on a union. But in January, after about 75% of SAM’s VSO guards had signed permission cards to unionize with Local 116 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (UPAT), museum leaders said they had their hands tied because of a 1947 labor law banning “mixed guard unions.” – unions that represent both safety and other types of workers – to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Because the museum refused to voluntarily recognize UPAT Local 116, the VSO SAMs decided to go independent – ​​this time including only the security department to avoid legal headaches. The union would include up to 60 museum guards and VSO workers.

On January 27, the museum announced a department-wide restructuring for front-line staff that included more stable schedules for part-time VSOs and an increase in the number of full-time security guards from 29 to 44 current full-time positions.

But Davis says the positions are non-contractual, which means the institution could technically choose not to hire another full-time employee if one leaves.

They also got pay raises, bringing a “tier one” VSO’s hourly wage to $20.44, which Davis says is appreciated, but “the city is still incredibly expensive and the cost of life only accelerates towards sunset at hyperspeed, every single year. (The minimum wage in Seattle is currently $17.25 an hour.)

SAM organizers say they have also suffered “aggressive union busting” since trying to unionize, including targeted retaliation against union organizers, a hostile work environment and arbitrary schedule changes that led to pay cuts for some workers.

The SAM VSO union would include up to 60 museum guards and VSO workers. (screenshot by Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

An organizer, Aselya Keyes, who has worked as a VSO at SAM for the past five years, said the museum put her on paid leave on March 23 pending an ongoing investigation – but she does not was not informed of the subject of the investigation.

“It was just super vague. I had no idea why I was being investigated,” Keyes said in an interview with Hyperallergic.

In a subsequent meeting with SAM human resources staff Gerard Philpotts and COO Jeff Draeger, Keyes was asked if she knew why she was being investigated.

“It was like they wanted me to incriminate myself, like a trap or something,” she continued.

What followed was a litany of complaints against Keyes, some based on incidents that happened months ago, like her putting hot sauce in a colleague’s drink and hiding a bikini in the locker from another. The organizer says the drink was made as a joke and she didn’t force anyone else to drink it. The bikini she’d left on the table in the break room, a present from a friend for an upcoming trip that didn’t suit her. Someone else had put it in a colleague’s locker as a prank, she claims.

“Now all of a sudden these insignificant incidents or events in the past are such a serious matter,” Keyes told Hyperallergic. She was also told that she slammed her locker too loudly. “I was like, are you gonna fire me for slamming my locker?”

Keyes, the only POC among major union organizers, has said in the past that she has experienced sexual harassment and racism in the workplace from bosses and co-workers, but when she reported those issues in HR, she was ignored. (Regarding Keyes’ allegations, a SAM spokesperson declined to comment further, citing ongoing litigation, but added that “[the museum’s] actions were fully in accordance with the law. “)

Keyes also says museum management knew she had spoken publicly about the union before firing her.

The same week, March 29, SAM HR sent an email to the VSO department denying suggestions made in union leaflets that the museum was retaliating against organizing leaders.

“Whether the organizing employees are the leaders you want or deserve is up to you,” the email reads, urging workers to ask themselves a series of questions about “the organizers’ commitment to SAM and success” and whether they have “good judgment. .”

Then, in a meeting on April 4, museum officials asked Keyes to prove that she was not breaching the confidentiality of the investigation and to discuss it with colleagues by providing them with screenshots of her Signal conversations, some of which included union activities, she said.

Keyes also alleges that she tried to ask a union witness to exercise her Weingarten rights — which guarantee workers’ rights to representation in investigative interviews — before the meeting, but the museum denied her request.

She was fired two days later.

Keyes believes his dismissal, which came just before union elections, which could be held as early as next week, is no coincidence. “It was obviously to get me off the hook, to keep me from organizing myself,” Keyes told Hyperallergic.

“And it’s been so psychologically, mentally and emotionally damaging to me that I won’t be the same person when I come back,” she added.

An Instagram post from Decolonize SAM, a collective of museum workers protesting the museum’s response to Seattle’s homeless community (screenshot by Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Keyes, who filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB, wants his job back. And she continues to organize on the fringes and go to union meetings.

“I haven’t been anywhere,” she said. “I have always been an advocate and an organizer.” Prior to his union involvement, Keyes was part of Decolonize SAM, a collective of SAM employees who organized a boycott of the museum in response to its recent policies and “hostile architecture” against the local homeless community.

A SAM representative told Hyperallergic that “the decision to terminate the staff member is in response to serious misconduct in the workplace that violates our employee code of conduct,” and that it was “unrelated to this individual’s involvement in the organizing effort.”

If SAM VSO workers unionize, they will join thousands of museum workers in a recent wave of unionization across the country.

“I feel like the frontline staff are almost always the lowest paid, the most ignored, but at the same time they keep the museum alive,” says Keyes.

Davis believes the pandemic has given arts workers, like many others, a space to reflect on how they have been compensated for their time.

“Obviously it should be worth working at a lower wage because we’re in a museum,” Davis says. “And we are very happy to work in the arts. But people still need financial support to live in these big cities where museums are often located.

“And I think our hope is to be able to do both.”

Mildred D. Field