Employees at the Art Institute of Chicago are coming together to form a union, the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU)

In a public letter released earlier this week, employees at the Art Institute of Chicago announced that they are coming together to form a union, the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU).  

“We believe there can be no equity without power sharing; therefore, we, the undersigned—staff members from various departments and diverse roles across the institution—are uniting to form our union,” the letter reads in part. “By negotiating a fair contract with management, we will work to realize the museum’s potential as a true leader among its peers.”

Chicago, Illinois, America - Nov 2012

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Paul Brown/Shutterstock (1950696z)
The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, America
Chicago, Illinois, America - Nov 2012

The Art Institute furloughed or laid more than 200 museum employees last year in response to revenue shortfalls from the Covid-19 pandemic. A majority of staff took temporary pay cuts last year, which were scaled to impact higher-paid staff, with museum leadership taking cuts of up to 50%. However, there were no permanent reductions made to top executive’s salaries.

Art Institute President and CEO reportedly earned more than $900,000 in 2018, while museum executives such as Eve Jeffers, Vice President for Museum Development; Andy Simnick, former Vice President for Finance, Strategy, and Operations; and Sarah Guernsey, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs, reportedly earned $568,000, $300,000 and $250,000 in 2018, respectively. Annual staff raises were suspended indefinitely in response to revenue shortfalls and only reinstated shortly before museum leadership announced that they were aware of employees’ intention to form a union.

Art Institute staff are organizing with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). AFSCME represents some 10,000 museum workers at 91 cultural institutions nationwide and more than 25,000 library workers at 275 public and private libraries, including the Chicago Public Library, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the MET, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. (MOCA), the American Museum of Natural History and many more.

 This unionization effort comes amidst a recent surge of labor organizing at museums and cultural organizations across the country, including at the Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.

 “We are organizing a union because we love the Art Institute, and we believe that what’s good for the workers is good for the museum,” technician Thomas Huston said. “We want to secure a better future for the workers who make the museum what it is.”

 “The museum’s stated values include equity, sustainability and transparency, but it cannot make those a reality without listening to and understanding my coworkers’ needs and concerns,” said Sheila Majumdar, an editor in the museum’s publishing department. “If forming a union does nothing other than give us a clear line of communication with our leadership, that will be transformative.”

 Kevin Whiteneir, a reference librarian, added, "Museum staff deserve an empowered voice in matters of our employment, compensation, and overall well-being. For too long my coworkers and I have appealed to the museum administration for better conditions and have received empty promises or have found situations have worsened.  We deserve a workplace that is fair and treats us with respect, and this is our chance to make that happen.”

 “We are happy to welcome Art Institute of Chicago employees to our ever-growing AFSCME family,” Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said. “The museum is a Chicago icon, part of the heart of our city, and the employees are the heart of the museum. By coming together in their union, these workers can make the Art Institute a better place to work, visit and learn for all of Chicago.”

 The organizing committee is now collecting union cards signed by their coworkers. When a strong majority has signed, AICWU will ask the museum to voluntarily recognize their union.

 “Employees should be free to exercise their right to form their union without employer interference,” Lynch said. “The museum should not squander its resources—money or time—on anti-union attorneys, anti-union emails or anti-union meetings with workers.”

 You can sign on as a public supporter of the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United HERE.