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Tacoma Art Museum workers push to unionize

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Workers at the Tacoma Art Museum are moving to join the Washington Federation of State Employees and become the state’s first museum with unionized workers across departments.

About a dozen workers announced the effort Monday, gathering outdoors across the street from the museum in an event also attended by local and state labor leaders. If they obtain union representation, TAM’s workers would bargain for increased wages and benefits, more transparency from higher ups and more say in institutional decisions that affect them, according to the three-worker committee elected by the workers to organize for them.

“TAM workers are undervalued, underpaid and unheard,” Eden Redmond, organizing committee member and TAM’s grants manager, said in her speech Monday. “Resources for grievances or advancement are available only if you can find them, invent them or befriend the right people.”

The effort at TAM has been in motion since the beginning of the year and aligns with similar efforts at cultural institutions elsewhere in the country. Cultural workers in general, such as security workers at the Seattle Art Museum, have been making strides in unionization efforts throughout the pandemic. Interdepartmental unions have been popping up as well: Workers at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts reached their first union contract in June after voting to form a union in late 2020. Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art also unionized in 2020 and ended a 19-day strike over their contract last week.

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The Philadelphia Museum of Art workers are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, just as the TAM workers would be — the Washington Federation of State Employees is the local council of AFSCME. The number of cultural workers (defined by AFSCME as workers at libraries, museums and other cultural centers) represented by AFSCME is the largest in the country, including, among others, 10,000 museum workers at 100 institutions, a representative of AFSCME Council 28/WFSE said.

So far, nearly 90% of TAM’S 27 eligible employees (non-senior staff) have signed union authorization cards, indicating they want to be represented by a union. From here, things can go a couple of ways. Because a majority of workers signed the cards, the museum can voluntarily recognize the union and begin bargaining. If TAM declines to voluntarily recognize the union, the workers can file an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board. If a majority of the workers vote in favor of a union in the election, the NLRB will certify the union, at which point TAM is legally required to recognize it.

After TAM’s board of trustees received the workers’ letter requesting union representation Monday morning, board president Jeff Williams said it is too early to say whether TAM will voluntarily recognize the union.

Redmond said they chose AFSCME Council 28/WFSE as the union to join because a broader union gives them a network and is better to address the “systemic dysfunction of cultural institutions.”

When Redmond started at TAM in 2021, she noticed themes throughout her conversations with various departments: No good means for reviews or promotions, the inability to have ideas heard and what she characterized as a retaliatory culture that predates the museum’s most recent executive director, David Setford. Setford resigned in September for personal reasons, Williams said in a news release. The museum does not have an interim director while the board searches for Setford’s replacement.

“Once those themes became clear to me, collective action was the only solution,” Redmond said.

All three members of the organizing committee said wages are a top concern. Joe Liwag, an organizing committee member who works in visitor services at TAM, said he’s a full-time employee at the top of a tier system TAM has for his department. He makes $17 an hour with benefits, while the people below him make $15-$16 an hour without benefits because they are part time. These are not deliverable wages in Tacoma, Redmond said, and the part-time staff work too many hours to pick up a second job.

Another priority, the committee said, would be assurance that workers will have a say in decisions that affect them, or at least some transparency from senior staff and the board in that decision-making process.

Williams said he is not aware of any of the issues brought forward by the workers, but the board will look into them. As board president, he said, he doesn’t normally deal with day-to-day operations, so the letter was his “first understanding that they felt this strongly.” Because TAM does not now have a director, the board will be figuring out next steps in terms of the unionization effort, along with TAM senior management.

“The management team and the board will basically be … doing our due diligence to make sure that we handle this in the most fair way possible,” he said. “We want our employees to be happy, and we want our employees to be satisfied with their jobs.”


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