Art Institute of Chicago Employees Ask Museum Leadership for Voluntary Recognition

After a majority of the Art Institute of Chicago’s 650 employees signed union cards designating the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU) as their official bargaining representative, workers gathered in front of the museum’s iconic Michigan Avenue facade to call on the presidents of the museum and college to formally recognize their union.


Employees, students, and community members gather on the Michigan Avenue steps of the museum in support of the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United. Photo courtesy of AICWU.

Standing in the shadow of the Art Institute lions, AIC Editor and Organizing Committee Member Sheila Majumdar announced, “My colleagues and I are here because we care deeply about our institutions, and we are forming our union because that care should be reciprocated to workers. We haven’t had a seat at the table, so we’re making our voices heard through our union. Now that our coworkers have spoken, we invite senior leadership of the museum and of the school to put their anti-worker behavior behind them and join us in the spirit of collaboration and mutual respect. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work making progress together.”

In the weeks following the announcement of staff’s intention to form a union, museum leadership hired the costly management-side law firm of Cozen O’Connor and PR consultancy Reputation Partners as part of their concerted effort to squash worker organizing. On September 9, Art Institute and SAIC workers, joined by a strong contingent of university students, marched in front of the school and museum, calling on senior leadership to respect their right to organize. Senior leaderships’ anti-worker policies and activities have heightened mistrust amongst staff. SAIC Receptionist Rachel Perlman described the situation, “As excited and happy as we are, we need to call out the poor conduct of our employer. Leadership of the school and the museum are engaging in relentless anti-worker, anti-union behavior behind the scenes... We are here to say this anti-worker, anti-union behavior must stop immediately."

Before the press conference on Tuesday, delegations of workers from the AICWU organizing committee delivered formal letters to museum President James Rondeau and school President Elissa Tenny, requesting that they respect their choice to form their union by granting voluntary recognition. Kevin Whiteneir, an AIC librarian and prominent member of the organizing committee, declared, “Solid majorities of our coworkers have signed union authorization cards. We are saying with one voice that it is our will to form this union. Senior leadership have said they will work with us if we choose to form our union, so our letters asked AIC President James Rondeau and SAIC President Elissa Tenny to grant our union voluntary recognition.”

Voluntary recognition is a process where a neutral third party reviews the signed union cards and then the union is certified. By forgoing an official election, senior leadership recognize the union as the employees’ representative, notify the National Labor Relations Board—who certify the union—and begin to bargain in good faith with the union. A lengthy election, beleaguered by senior leaderships’ anti-worker campaign is guaranteed to further strain already tense relationships between management and employees. Voluntary recognition would allow museum and school leadership to begin restoring trust with staff, opening dialogue, and levelling institutional hierarchies. In recent years, art museums, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, both voluntarily recognized their newly formed unions. Kevin Whiteneir was adamant during his speech, “If senior leadership of AIC and SAIC truly respect our choice and want to work with us, then we look forward to recognition.”

Members of the organizing committee see voluntary recognition as an essential step in restoring staffs’ trust in senior leadership and working collaboratively to envision a more just and equitable workplace. SAIC Assistant Director of Career and Professional Experience Myia Brown shared, “It is so energizing and inspiring to see the community that we have already built, coming out of the silos in which we’ve been kept and realizing how much we have in common with each other. We’re asking for voluntary recognition from leadership to show they share our commitment to a collaborative and mutually beneficial path forward. Recognition would let us move forward together with a focus on our jobs and the mission of the museum.”