To form a union alongside employees of the museum

In a historic bid, more than 300 employees of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago have announced their intention to form a union alongside employees of the museum in a public letter released this month. The announcement, signed by nearly 50 school employees who are part of the SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) organizing committee, came one week after similar news from workers on the museum side of the Art Institute. Both groups are coming together as the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU).


The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Image Courtesy of Tom Harris.

The organizing committee members declare in their public letter:

“Through the collective voice of the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United, we will advocate for an equitable, sustainable, and transparent workplace for SAIC employees at every level. We want to be heard—and we want to collaborate—in a productive, open, and supportive exchange that will foster a community that values all our work. … The union is not an outside party negotiating for us; we employees are the union, taking responsibility for our livelihoods. Individually, our voices are quiet and hold little sway, but when we put trust in each other, we can speak loudly and powerfully on our own behalf now and in the future.”

In a press release distributed by the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United, several employees wrote about their reasons for signing on to the public letter, challenging the pervasive inequity at both the school and museum. Eala O’Sè, SAIC assistant manager of material source, said, “For the past two years I've worked on committee after committee that's meant to make a change in how staff are treated at SAIC. While we've made some minor adjustments on these committees, none of them have been anywhere near the substantial changes that the school needs to give staff an equal place in the institution. Our union will make sure our needs and rights are taken seriously.”

Mailroom technician Katie Bourgeois adds, “I wanted to join with my coworkers in organizing because I feel like a union is our best chance at affecting real and lasting material change within this institution. AICWU is a pledge to my coworkers, my friends, and my community that we will continue to fight for each other.”

Many employees’ relationships with the school span years, such as academic Stephanie Lin-Sumah, who said, “As an alumna of SAIC, an academic advisor, and part-time faculty, my love and loyalty for this school runs deep—just like so many of us who work here, pouring our hearts and souls into this institution. So, when our institution continues to operate in ways that perpetuate inequity, while endangering the health and safety of its workers despite our vocal concerns, it cuts deeper. That's why we're organizing our union: We believe if we have the courage to let go of hierarchical ways of working and exchange them for a model of shared power and responsibility, we can build a more equitable SAIC together.”

“I support our union because I believe in the arts, equity, and a future that contains all our voices,” SAIC academic advisor Michael Zapata said. “Let's build that future together! ¡Somos juntos!

Both organizing committees are now collecting union cards signed by their coworkers. When a strong majority has signed, AICWU will ask the museum and school to voluntarily recognize their union.

“By coming together in their union, these workers can make the School of the Art Institute a better place to learn, the museum a better place to visit and both better places to work,” Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said. Regrettably, both the school and museum appear to be using familiar, corporate anti-union tactics against workers, including training managers in anti-union talking points and disseminating anti-union rhetoric to employees. AFSCME’s Lynch chastised museum and school leadership, “Employees should be free to exercise their right to form their union without employer interference. Neither the school nor the museum should squander time or money on anti-union attorneys, anti-union emails or anti-union meetings with workers.”

AICWU will be part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. 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.

You can read more employee testimonials from the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United on their Instagram account, and you can sign on as a public supporter of the organizing effort HERE.