Tacoma Art Museum employees rally for union recognition
After months of rallying and demanding recognition for their union, the employees of the Tacoma Art Museum received some assurance that the museum’s board of trustees would discuss the most recent union proposal at the end of the month.
While the board met Thursday evening, the museum’s employees and members of various other labor organizations rallied for about an hour outside the building. The group then walked down to the building’s parking lot, where Interim Executive Director Helen McGovern-Pilant met them.
McGovern-Pilant told the group that the trustees had decided to hold a special board meeting from 3-5 p.m. March 31 to hear from Tacoma Art Museum Workers United.
Workers at the museum hope that a union will allow them to negotiate for better pay and working conditions, as well as give them a seat at the table for decision making.
“There has been a strong lack of transparency from leadership to the workers and a major disconnect that has happened over many, many years,” said Steven Rue, lead preparer at the museum and a member of the union’s organizing committee. “And it seems to have just gotten worse. So we’re looking to regain a voice in the decisions that affect us most.”
One concern of the organizing committee is the loss of full-time employees. The number of full-time employees dropped from 48 in fiscal year 2022 to 35 in fiscal year 2023, according to an email sent from the organizing committee to the board of trustees.
McGovern-Pilant was careful not to make any promises about what the board may or may not decide.
“They have heard you, and there will be action,” McGovern-Pilant said to the crowd.
Workers have been organizing since the spring of 2022 and went public with their efforts to the board in October. Even though the union has had over 80% support since employees went public, the board has said the employees must go through an election overseen by the National Labor and Relations Board.
Were the Tacoma Art Museum Workers United to pursue the election through the labor and relations board, it would disqualify the museum’s two security guards from joining the union. That’s because of the Taft-Hartley Act, specifically the “guard exclusion” amendment, which states security workers cannot be in the same union as non-security workers if a union is certified through a labor and relations board election.
“That really just stinks of inequity,” Rue said.
The Tacoma Art Museum Workers United would include about 30 employees.
“We are a small museum, a small institution, and it’s really important for us to maintain a wall-to-wall union, which means we have members that cross all departments of the museum,” Rue said.
Carrie Morton is the museum’s store manager and another member of the organizing committee.
“To me, it just does not seem right to have multiple unions or to put one group out in the cold basically without the same bargaining rights that everybody enjoys,” Morton said.
The board of trustees has pushed back on officially recognizing the union, citing the need for the museum to choose a new executive director first, said Eden Redmond, institutional giving manager at the museum, and a member of the organizing committee.
“We’ve heard the board tell us it’s not their role, actually it’s the role of an executive director, and that’s not accurate,” Redmond said. “The board has full life license to recognize the union now, as does the interim, but that hasn’t happened.”
The former executive director, David Setford, left last September. McGovern-Pilant has filled the role since December, while the museum seeks to hire a permanent director.
On March 10, the union submitted a proposal to the board of trustees for an independent election, which would not require going through the National Labor and Relations Board.
At the rally, members of various union and labor groups attended to support the museum employees.
Julie Richards works for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 367. She said she’s been following the progress of the museum’s employees on social media and she attends every rally to offer her support.
“The process does take quite a while and sometimes it feels like an uphill battle,” Richards said. “With support from all these other unions, they can gain footing and gain strength.”
Nathe Lawver, secretary treasurer for the Pierce County Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said what many chanted throughout the rally.
“Tacoma is a union town,” Lawver said. “We’re at the end of the Prairie Line Trail, where the railroad ended, and that railroad brought in good jobs. And we overlooked the Port of Tacoma, again: good jobs. All this because those workers had that right to come together with a common voice for better pay, better working conditions.”