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MUSEUMS

In a landslide vote, MFA workers opt to unionize

“This is going to make the MFA stronger,” said one employee involved in the organizing effort.
“This is going to make the MFA stronger,” said one employee involved in the organizing effort.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Employees at the Museum of Fine Arts have voted overwhelmingly to unionize, opening a new era of collective bargaining at the city’s flagship museum.

The vote, which passed by a margin of 133 to 14, means employees across some 30 departments are eligible to join United Auto Workers Local 2110 at a time of deep economic uncertainty.

The results of the monthlong mail-in election, tabulated Friday afternoon over Zoom, affect roughly 200 museum employees. The vote is the culmination of an effort started in summer 2019 to join the roughly 5,000-member union.

“It’s a huge difference,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110. “Without a union all the decisions are made for you by museum leadership. With a union, they have to be transparent and accountable to workers.”

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Emma Rose Rainville, a development officer for the museum, said the union’s presence would transform the museum for years to come.

“This is going to make the MFA stronger,” said Rainville, who was involved in the organizing effort. “Generations of employees will have ways to stick together and support one another.”

Museum of Fine Arts director Matthew Teitelbaum called the vote “important for our staff and for the MFA.”

“We have said throughout this process that above all, we support our employees’ right to make this decision and we want to ensure all voices are heard,” Teitelbaum said in a statement to the Globe. “We are pleased that the election played out smoothly and fairly, and we are committed to working with the union moving forward.”

Even so, Rosenstein said representatives for the museum challenged the ballots of 41 workers, including some curators and conservators, arguing those positions aren’t eligible for union membership. She added that the contested ballots, which aren’t numerous enough to change the election’s outcome, would remain unopened.

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“Those positions should be in the union,” said Rosenstein. “We want to be able to resolve at least some of those positions without further litigation.”

A spokeswoman for the museum declined to address the contested ballots.

Friday’s results come as part of a broader national push among cultural workers to organize. In August, employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted overwhelming to join a union, and similar efforts are underway at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Maine’s Portland Museum of Art.

The MFA’s unionization drive garnered support from Senator Elizabeth Warren, who earlier this week urged Teitelbaum to “lead by example” and comply with federal labor law.

“These employees deserve a chance to have a voice in their workplace, and, if they choose, join a union,” Warren wrote in a letter dated Nov. 17. “[F]ederal law protects their right to do so: the National Labor Relations Act grants workers the right to organize and prohibits employers from interfering with this right.”

Rosenstein said that although the museum leadership made it “pretty clear they would prefer not to have a union, I would not label them as union busters.”

The vote to unionize comes at one of the most difficult times in the MFA’s 150-year history. The museum has only partially reopened following a six-month closure that included a painful round of layoffs and early retirements affecting more than 100 jobs.

Kat Bossi, executive assistant to the head of exhibitions, said the union could have played a critical role during last summer’s round of layoffs.

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“We understand it’s not a cure-all, but at the very least we can have a say and fight to get what the staff deserves,” said Bossi.

But with COVID-19 case counts surging, Boston museums aren’t out of the woods. Nationally, a number of museums (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art) announced earlier this week that they would temporarily close because of the coronavirus.

An MFA spokeswoman said the museum was closely monitoring the situation and was in communication with state and city officials.

Teitelbaum said he remained optimistic despite the many obstacles faced by the museum.

“[W]e continue to believe the MFA has made progress toward our mission and goals, and we believe that we are on the right path to achieve new possibilities together with our employees and the community,” he said.

In addition to MFA employees, UAW Local 2110 represents professional and administrative staff at the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum in New York, and is now working to organize workers at the Portland museum.

Rosenstein estimated the union would be certified in about a week, after which it can begin contract negotiations with the museum.




Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.