Art Institute employees say management is trying to block their union efforts

Employees at the Art Institute of Chicago say the museum management is trying to thwart their attempts to negotiate collectively – and they are demanding that officials step aside and allow union efforts to continue without interference.

Staff from the department’s museum and school submitted papers earlier this month to hold a federally run election that will determine whether they can form a union. But management has intimidated workers and held meetings to prevent union, workers charged at a meeting Monday on the institute’s famous front steps on Michigan Avenue.

Many employees who organize as the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United are pushing to join the council.

“We have seen very typical corporate anti-union talking points and tactics being communicated by the management of the museum and the school,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

These tactics include “implicitly threatening workers” about losing benefits and “wrongly telling workers” that they are not eligible for the union, Lindall said. Workers suspected of leading union efforts have also received unusually poor performance reports, which appear to be retaliatory actions, he added.

“All of these things are very subtle, but because they are so subtle, they are insidious,” Lindall said. “Management outwardly tries to claim that they respect workers’ rights, but all their internal communication, implicit threats and sparsely veiled warnings are anything but neutral.”

Museum workers and politicians urged museum management to remain neutral as a union vote approaches.  Stand on the steps of the Museum Art Institute Chicago

Museum workers and politicians urged museum management to remain neutral as a union vote approaches.
Jason Beeferman / Sun-Times

In an email to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Art Institute says management officials have been neutral throughout the process.

“As we have said from the beginning, we fully respect the right of our employees to decide whether they want to join a trade union or not,” said a spokesman for the Art Institute. “This is an important decision that should be left to each employee to make individually.”

The institute denied having retaliated against employees or held meetings to deter them from joining a union.

At the meeting, workers said they have limited opportunities for pay rises and promotions and that it is difficult to advocate for improvements in the workplace without the strength of a union. A vote on whether to form a union is not yet planned, but may take place in the coming weeks, the working group said.

“Working for these institutions should not just be a job that we are grateful to have while struggling to make ends meet,” said Catie Rutledge, a philanthropic coordinator at the museum. “It should be a career that we can dedicate ourselves to, that rewards us in return.”

Staff also said the institute has also hired “union buster” companies to stop organizing efforts.

“It’s insulting, it’s outrageous, but we do not want to be intimidated,” said Katie Bourgeois, a school mail technician.

The Art Institute of Chicago's exhibition on the painter El Greco took years to assemble, and then closed after less than a week due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Art Institute of Chicago rejected the employees’ claims in an email, saying the decision to join a union should be left to each individual worker
Sun-Times file

Bourgious said the museum has retained several attorneys and hired public relations firm Reputation Partners to stifle union efforts.

But the spokesman for the Art Institute said the firms are there to ensure the organization “follows the rules of the National Labor Relations Boards” and “speaks precisely in our communication to staff.”

Katie Bourgeois (left) said the Art Institute has hired outside firms to hamper efforts to join a union

Katie Bourgeois (right) said the Art Institute has hired outside firms to hamper efforts to join a union
Jason Beeferman / Sun-Times

Lindall has previously told the Chicago Sun-Times that the “overwhelming majority” of staff at the museum and the School of the Art Institute signed union authorization cards. The proposed negotiating unit will cover about 600 people, he said.

If the museum did not want an election, it could have voluntarily recognized the staff’s desire to form a union, but it refused management, Lindall said.

A hearing to determine the date and terms of the election is scheduled for Wednesday, unless the two parties can reach an agreement before then, Lindall said.

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