When the EcoTarium in Worcester finally reopened its indoor exhibits to the public earlier this month, the science and nature museum promised visitors a variety of changes, including new traveling exhibitions, cashless transactions, and enhanced safety protocols.
But the biggest transformation took place a few days before, when a tally revealed museum staff, buffeted by a year of extensive layoffs and shuttered indoor exhibits, had voted overwhelmingly to unionize, joining a national labor movement among museum workers catalyzed by the pandemic.
“This has been a long time in the making,” said Catrina Vear, 36, a manager of institutional philanthropy at the EcoTarium. “I don’t think the pandemic necessarily caused this action; I do think it was an accelerant.”
Museums, home to generous donors, committed staffs, and expansive mission statements, have often side-stepped labor struggles. But that’s changed over the past few years, as staff at a number of museums have sought better pay and job security through collective bargaining — a drive many culture workers regard as part of the broader social justice movement.
“There’s been a lot of renewed interest,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110 UAW, which has organized staff at numerous museums in recent years, including several in New England. “I thought the pandemic would really harm our organizing efforts.”
To the contrary, the pandemic, which forced deep cuts at many museums, has worked in tandem with the heated racial dialogue following the murder of George Floyd to expand union drives across the country.
In 2020 alone, staff at the Philadelphia Museum Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, among several others, all formed collective bargaining units.
Closer to home, employees at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine have all voted to join the Technical, Office, and Professional Union, Local 2110 UAW in the past eight months. Rosenstein, who recently worked to organize staff at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, said she’s in talks with employees at two other Boston-area museums about joining Local 2110.
“Much of it is about pay inequality, and the fact that museum professionals have remained at very low salaries,” Rosenstein said. “There are many people who are working in a very precarious way.”
What makes this push different, however, is that it’s driven by a younger generation that considers unionization to be about more than job security and wages. They want their workplaces to share their values and view collective bargaining agreements as bound up with the broader effort to make museums more egalitarian — organizations whose public embrace of progressive, anti-racist ideals are reflected in their workplace culture.
“Museums purport to be very progressive places, and they present and profit from artwork that critiques systems of oppression,” said Maro Elliott, 32, who works in Mass MoCA’s development department. “We’re really hoping that through unionizing, institutions can be held more accountable to follow through on their promises of addressing these issues.”
Unlike some nonprofits, class divides often come into sharp relief at museums, where wealthy donors rub elbows with low-wage workers. The staff, often overwhelmingly white, college-educated, and hailing from privileged backgrounds, are passionate about their mission-driven work. But low wages can put economic stability out of reach and even impede workforce diversity: Who can afford to take a $40,000-per-year job when you have outsize student loans to pay, while the upper echelons of museum administration can make in the mid- to upper-six figures, and beyond?
“There’s an idea that you love the work, and that’s part of your compensation,” said Jordan Barnes, 29, a library assistant at the MFA. “But some of our full-time staff members make less than $26,000 a year.”
The dynamic is not new, but dissatisfaction began to increase several years ago as museum workers around the country began circulating anonymous, crowd-sourced files that listed their positions and salaries. Meanwhile, museums were coming under increased pressure to become more inclusive — a call that prompted many organizations to diversify programming and try to expand audience, even as staff demographics remained largely unchanged.
Ximena Varela, who directs the arts management program at American University in Washington, D.C., said museum leaders were often more concerned with programming and creating “pipelines” for people of color, as opposed to the “role the museum plays in perpetuating structures of white supremacy.”
But then came the pandemic, with its wave of shutdowns, layoffs, and furloughs, followed by the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Administrators moved swiftly to shore up the bottom line, which Varela said often worked counter to their previous diversity efforts, with low-wage workers often the first to go.
“They were keeping the museum open for a diverse public, but at the same time sort of turning their backs on the people within the museum,” Varela said. “So the pandemic really lights a fire, [exposing] injustice within museums, and the lack of protection that primarily people of color have in the museum world.”
In April 2020, the MFA furloughed more than 300 employees. That was followed in August by a reduction of more than 100 full- and part-time positions as the museum sought to avert a major budget shortfall.
For Emma Rose Rainville, a development officer at the museum, the turmoil magnified long-simmering issues that had inspired them to organize.
“It felt like all of us were kind of in these little boats at sea, trying to figure out what was happening,” said Rainville, 33. “We didn’t have a voice. It was just such a crystallizing moment for so many people.”
At Mass MoCA, employees point to a signal event: The bruising layoffs of April 2020, which slashed the museum’s staff by more than 70 percent.
“It became very clear to us how little job protection we had,” said Elliott, who helped organize the drive. “It really created a feeling of mistrust and betrayal.”
Tracy Moore, interim director at Mass MoCA, said the museum is “fully committed to working with the union.”
“MASS MoCA is still in the very early stages of the unionization process, and we’re learning as we go,” Moore said in a statement. “But the broader push for unionization in museums in recent years has revealed inequities that exist in the field.”
Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that museum directors, like the organizations they lead, often skew left. They may not welcome the union drive, but they rarely put up the sort of bare-knuckled anti-union campaign seen in the private sector.
“They don’t want the headache that would come from a drawn out, ugly, anti-union battle,” said Rosenfeld, author of “What Unions No Longer Do.”
At the MFA, where contract negotiations have begun, director Matthew Teitelbaum emphasized that the museum supports “the right of employees to unionize,” adding they’ve been working with the UAW to create an “equitable and sustainable” first contract.
“We recognize that compensation and benefits are a priority in our field, and will be addressing them in negotiations,” Teitelbaum said in a statement to the Globe. “I am confident we will reach a favorable outcome.”
At the EcoTarium, management took the rare step of announcing that its staff was joining AFSCME Council 93. The press release was also careful to note that although leadership had opposed organizing, it “never conducted an anti-union campaign or hired lawyers to oppose employee efforts.”
“The biggest stressor is the financial piece,” said Kerry Castorano, the museum’s vice president of institutional advancement. “What are the long-term implications?”
At the Portland Museum of Art, relations turned contentious last fall when employees issued a press release that accused administration of using “anti-worker tactics pulled straight from the corporate union-busting playbook.”
A spokesperson for the museum disputed that characterization.
“The PMA accepts the results of the election and looks forward to bargaining in good faith,” said Graeme Kennedy, director of strategic communications & public relations. “We are dedicated to finding common ground.”
Still, for Whitney Stanley, an associate registrar at the PMA, the museum’s actions were unmistakable.
“It was definitely an anti-union campaign,” said Stanley, 31, who sees the union push in generational terms. “We’re all just sort of generally over these structures that have created oppression.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.