Workers at Tacoma Art Museum vote unanimously to unionize

Members of TAMWU celebrating after the announcement that workers unanimously voted for unionizing. (Credit: Gillian Fulford, AFSCME Council 28 / WFSE)
Members of TAMWU celebrating after the announcement that workers unanimously voted for unionizing. (Credit: Gillian Fulford, AFSCME Council 28 / WFSE)



To unionize, Tacoma Art Museum Workers United [TAMWU] needed the majority of its 26 workers to vote yes. After two days of voting in an election overseen by the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission, the unanimous results came in Thursday evening — 26 in favor of unionizing. 

With the vote, the union will join the Washington Federation of State Employees, [AFSCME Council 28/WFSE] part of the nationwide American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some 10,000 cultural institution workers nationwide. 

Significant about TAMWU’s bargaining unit is the inclusion of employees from multiple museum departments. Museum workers across the country have struggled to bargain as a whole and have been split into separate unions. Often, workers at museums are separated into unions based on positions, like the security guard union at the Seattle Art Museum and at the Frye Art Museum.

That’s because of the section in the National Labor Relations Act, often referred to as the “guard exclusion,” that states security workers cannot be included in bargaining units with other non-security workers. Because of this, TAMWU has been set on voluntary recognition through an independent election process, the terms of which would be set between them and the museum’s Board of Trustees, as opposed to going through the National Labor Relations Board. 

The union feared going through NLRB could divide the rank-and-file by possibly excluding visitor service employees — who interface with the public and protect art — from being under the same bargaining unit as administrative professionals.

Workers said they wanted to unionize to ensure better working conditions and pay.  Visitors service employees are one of the lowest paid and most diverse groups of employees in the museum, said Patrick Sugrue, director of communications with AFSCME Council 28/WFSE.  

“If you’re forming a union, you might as well form it with the people that need it most and not exclude them,” Sugrue said. 

TAMWU has been fighting for recognition since October 2022. In July, they began negotiating the terms of an independent election with the museum’s board. While the union was able to include employees across departments, the board would not agree to the inclusion of the two security guards, because of the NLRB rule. Eden Redmond, one of the organizers behind the union, said the union will continue to advocate for their inclusion. 

With the vote, TAMWU is the first multi-department art museum union in the state — a mouthful, but an impactful one, Sugrue said. 

“It is a big deal and I’m thinking that TAMWU has figured out a way to push against this sort of divide and conquer strategy — and we’re hoping to bring that to the rest of the cultural institutions here in Washington,” Sugrue said.

That was crucial to workers, Redmond said. 

“All of our work is interconnected,” said Redmond, who works as an institutional giving manager at TAM. “We need to be able to lobby together to work to be able to find solutions that best support our work holistically.” 

Redmond said next, the union will meet with labor advocates and begin drafting a contract. 

Members of the Tacoma Art Museum Board of Trustees could not be reached for comment prior to publication. 

Tacoma Art Museum Executive Director, Andy Maus, provided a written comment stating the museum aims to support its staff and community in any way it can. Maus added he feels the museum and union have created a collaborative relationship. He pointed to the board’s decision to allow for recognition without going through the NLRB. He said the museum will be working with the union going forward. 

According to AFSCME Council 28/WFSE, TAM will be exhibiting a labor solidarity installation with pieces involving TAMWU and other local labor organizations in the coming months.