Baltimore Museum Employees Are Planning to Unionize as a Nationwide Labor Movement Takes Hold in U.S. Art Institutions

The workers are calling for better job security and fair pay.

The Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images.

Workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art have announced plans to form a union, making the employees the latest in a nationwide push for better working conditions and higher pay at art museums, a field that suffers from drastic inequities.

In a statement, the Baltimore Museum organizers noted that the museum’s mission is to provide “artistic excellence and social equity,” and that the members were now “channeling this passion and energy to form a union.” Among the changes the union is seeking is better job security, fairer wages, and a say in decisions that affect them, according to the union’s website.

The organizers of the union announced their intention to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local council 67 in a blog post. AFSCME represents around 10,000 museum employees across the U.S.

The 36 organizers include Alex Lei, a gallery officer who said that he was inspired to unionize in the wake of the pandemic, when decisions were made without the input of staff members. Although the museum did not layoff or furlough any employees like so many other institutions, Lei said “Those of us working front of house weren’t really part of the conversation and didn’t know what to expect.” Adding, “we were told to come back and at the time it wasn’t clear that the safety protocols in place were enough to ensure our protection.”

During the first summer of the pandemic, 17 museums in the U.S. cut nearly 1,500 jobs in a single month. The mass layoffs, compounded with ongoing job and safety insecurity, pushed many workers to the edge.

“A union values and recognizes the impact and efforts of its workers,” Maggie Robbins, an employee in the exhibition design department said, “making for a more intentional and tangibly safe and supportive workplace.”

In a statement, the museum said “We are actively engaging in conversation with colleagues about possible unionization at the BMA and exploring the range of perspectives on the subject.” Organizers are asking the museum to voluntarily recognize the union, as was the case at the Whitney Museum of American Art earlier this year.

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