When Al Pope and her fellow guest engagement facilitators, educators and other workers at the Museum and Science Industry returned from their COVID-19 furloughs in 2021, they were stunned to find that many of its pre-pandemic hazards remained.
“There are some physical dangers we have to worry about in our job,” alleged Pope, a guest engagement facilitator. “But once we were post-pandemic, we realized there was no separate budget for coronavirus sick time…(that) there were still days that were ‘ineligible’ for us to take off, and the burnout that we had experienced before the pandemic became life-threatening.”
Beyond this, Pope alleged, workers struggled with minimal PPE accommodations, pay inequity for front line staff and lacking benefits and opportunities for growth. As museum workers felt increasingly vulnerable, Pope said, they felt emboldened to unite and advocate for themselves with a union.
“The connotation of what our jobs were really changed in the face of unprecedented times, but once we got back and realized that a lot of the same issues were in place … we realized this is something that we needed,” she said.
This June, after a year and a half of organizing, workers at the Hyde Park museum voted seventy-nine to twenty-six in an election with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union—the Museum of Science and Industry Workers United (MSIWU). An affiliate of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, MSIWU will represent about 140 workers in the museum’s guest experience, operations and education departments.
In doing so, workers also joined a wave of organizing at cultural institutions across the city. Over the last eighteen months, AFSCME Council 31 has helped to unionize workers at the School of the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Notebaert Nature Museum, and the Newberry Library.
“There’s no question that I think these cultural institutions have traded on their prestige for a long time, and have used that as a means to take their employees for granted,” said Anders Lindall, Public Affairs Director of AFSCME Council 31. “These institutions in essence have more or less said ‘you’re lucky to work here…working here and being in proximity to our collection is its own reward.’ But of course, that doesn’t pay the bills.”
But MSIWU’s campaign faced resistance. After workers went public with the union organizing drive in April, museum administration enlisted the services of Jackson Lewis, a notorious anti-union law firm. The administration soon launched Informed Choice, a campaign which provided “facts and figures” on unions with standalone websites, posters in the workplace and other materials.
In interviews, workers alleged that the campaign instead spread misleading information about the union, with material frequently suggesting that AFSCME is an outside (“third party”) agitator and that the cost of being in a union (i.e. monthly dues) outweighed the benefits.
“The Museum of Science and Industry respects our employees’ right to choose or decline union representation,” said a museum spokesperson. “Due to the importance of this choice and the fact that many of our employees do not have experience with union representation, MSI provided honest, factual information to its employees about unionization. MSI is not anti-union.”
“I think it just underscores one of their most transparent tactics, which was to pretend that somehow the union is separate, outside, alien and therefore scary,” Lindall said. “When in fact, the union is the workers who come together to address challenges that they see and want to build something better for the communities they serve.”
Workers mobilized against the alleged anti-union efforts in late April, hosting a rally on the steps of the museum to demand that management end its “divisive campaign of misinformation meant to confuse employees.” Joined by the likes of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Alderwoman Jeannette Taylor (20th), Alderman Desmon Yancy (5th) and Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter, workers delivered a signed pledge committing to “free and fair (union) organizing” to the museum’s CEO, Chevy Humphrey, asking her to publicly commit to not interfere in organizing efforts.
In an emailed statement about the election, an MSI spokesperson said, “Some of our employees voted in favor of union representation and others voted against representation … Our priority remains continuously building a positive workplace culture that supports the Museum of Science and Industry and benefits the greater Chicago community.”
Kristen Jameson, another guest engagement facilitator, said that even before management brought in Jackson Lewis, it felt as though workers were alienated from one another “by design.”
“Our break rooms are on different levels of the museum, our schedules don’t line up so that we see so many people in a day,” they said. “Through working on this effort we have gotten to know more people than we knew before…we’ve kind of grown to understand that we all work here, and we work here because we want to and because we do love the museum.”
Lindall, who has over the past year assisted dozens of museum workers across the city with organizing campaigns, echoed this sentiment. “A really frequent thing that I have heard is workers saying that they have been isolated and siloed,” he said. “That process of organizing, which is really all about talking to one another, building relationships with every coworker and sharing experiences, has enabled workers to come out of those silos and realize how much they have in common.”
“It’s about food security. It’s about being able to go to school, it’s about being able to have a family,” Pope said. “We love these jobs, but it’s important for the person next year to not be absolutely going through it.”
Reflecting on what unionizing could mean for their professional development, Jameson said, “I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the behind the scenes of MSI but, when we are able to more clearly establish mobility within and between departments, I may have a chance to forge a career at a museum that I already know and love.”
Next up for the union is the formation of a bargaining committee and conducting a bargaining survey, wherein workers will voice their desires, and a contract will be negotiated with the museum’s administration.
Malik is a contributing writer for the Weekly. He last covered two young filmmakers from opposite sides of the city.