An issue of art school under the Covid-19 pandemic

The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) have retained two corporate firms in a desperate bid to target their own employees and stymie their union organizing efforts.

Senior leadership hired the management-side law firm of Cozen O’Connor and PR consultancy Reputation Partners just weeks after employees announced their intent to form their union, Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU). The move is a blatant waste of institutional resources at a time when the museum has suspended merit raises and cost of living increases this past year, citing financial shortfalls due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and directly contradicts the museum’s stated efforts to create a more equitable and fairer workplace.


James Rondeau, President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Photo courtesy of the Art Institute.

Already the Cozen/Reputation Partners anti-worker campaign has deployed familiar rhetoric and shopworn tactics including repeated all-staff emails to oppose the employees’ union, training sessions to coach managers in anti-union talking points, wrongly telling employees that they’re ineligible for union representation when only the National Labor Relations Board can make that determination, and an all-staff meeting at the museum where management abruptly stopped taking questions after hearing initially from union supporters.

Mike Zapata, an academic advisor at SAIC and a member of the AICWU organizing committee spoke against the hiring of these firms, “We think it’s wrong for AIC and SAIC leadership to divert one penny away from our mission to pay these corporate lawyers and PR consultants for the purpose of attacking us, their own employees.”

“We think museum patrons and school students and alumni would be upset to know this is happening at the same time that senior leadership told staff they’re projecting a budget deficit for the 2022 fiscal year,” said Myia Brown, an organizing committee member who is assistant director of Career and Professional Experience at SAIC.

Cozen O’Connor is a Philadelphia-based law firm which claims to have 775 attorneys. It has represented large corporations including in management-side labor law; the three Cozen attorneys retained by the Art Institute of Chicago—Anna Wermuth, David Barron and Steven Millman—have defended corporations against class action claims for wage theft and discrimination. Wermuth represented Northwestern University in its successful effort to prevent its athletes from forming a union, while Barron has defended grocery giant Kroger in anti-discrimination cases. Court records show that in 2017, Barron was billing $430 per hour and Wermuth was billing $315 per hour.

Reputation Partners, a Chicago-based PR and crisis management firm that specializes in anti-union communications, has assigned founder and president Nick Kalm, executive vice president Andrew Moyer and senior vice president Brendan Griffith to the project. Although their rates may very well be higher now, in 2019 Reputation Partners charged $390 an hour for Kalm, $345 per hour for Moyer and $325 per hour for Griffith, documents show.

Reputation Partners has a history of anti-union consulting. In 2003 it helped a company called Chef Solutions fight its employees’ efforts to organize; the company was accused of tolerating the sexual abuse of immigrant women and faced 20 unfair labor practice charges.

The revelations come just days after nearly 150 elected leaders from Chicago and the surrounding area—including Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, seven members of Congress, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and 42 city aldermen—released a statement of support for AIC workers’ organizing and underscored their right to do so “free from employer interference”.

“We work at the museum and school because we love them, and we’re forming our union because we want to make them better places to work, learn and visit,” said AICWU organizing committee member Sheila Majumdar, an editor at AIC. “As employees we understand that when we hear anti-worker, anti-union claims from management, that’s really these big-money consultants talking. We won’t be fooled.”

“We want every AIC visitor and SAIC student to know where their money is going right now: Senior leadership is draining it away from our mission to give to corporate lawyers and PR consultants to attack us, the employees who make the museum and the school happen,” said Anna Feuer, an organizing committee member who works in the museum’s library. “It’s wrong and it should stop.” 

Senior leadership’s choice to squander institutional resources and undermine employees’ right to organize is unsurprising given the sharp divide between workers and leadership. Recently, AICWU revealed on their Instagram that James Rondeau, the museum’s president and director, makes $37,000 every 10 days—which is comparable to the amount a Grade 5 AIC employee might make in a year—and receives a $48,000 housing allowance, as well as perks such as first-class travel, spousal travel and $5,000 a year to spend on private club fees. He reportedly earns a gluttonous $960,688 a year; It would take an employee starting at $45,000 salary and receiving 2% annual raises 18 ½ years to earn what James Rondeau makes in a single year. The museum and school clearly have considerable financial resources to compensate leadership with exorbitant salaries and perks, contract with Spanish architectural firm Barozzi Veiga to build new construction—including a new $2 million director’s suite—and hire costly corporate firms to sow further mistrust between workers and leadership. Yet, when it comes to supporting staff, the answer is always the same: there is simply no money.