Workers at the Museum of Science and Industry publicly launched a campaign to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31.
Months in the making, the campaign went public on Wednesday, April 12 with an open letter to museum management signed by 54 guest engagement facilitators, educators and other workers. Later that day, several off-the-clock staff gathered on the museum’s front lawn to share information with patrons and coworkers about the new union, Museum of Science and Industry Workers United.
In the letter, workers say they’re forming a union to “address the internal inequities” at the museum, and are seeking pay equity, more professional development opportunities and the implementation of health and safety protocols.
“The museum operates like a machine with many moving parts, and it cannot thrive if we are unable to stand in solidarity with one another,” the letter reads. “We deserve a workplace culture that embodies the value of workers.”
The prospective bargaining unit would represent about 140 workers in the museum’s guest experience, operations and education departments. (Another 60 craftspeople at the museum are already unionized with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 134).
In a statement, the museum said it “will continue to respect our colleagues’ right to choose or refuse union representation” and that it is “an actively pro-employee institution and work environment.”
Marcus Banks, a guest engagement representative whose work involves selling tickets and facilitating field trips, said that workers’ organizing efforts are “inspired by a willingness and passion to make the museum better and make it a better place for workers.”
“It comes from a place of loving working there but (also) to ensure that working there is easy,” he added.
Low pay is a key issue for workers, Banks said, as most make between $17 and $20 per hour. He estimated that at least half of his coworkers are struggling financially each week.
“I make around that amount and I live in Hyde Park, it is not easy,” said Banks. “I definitely have to scramble.”
The living wage in Chicago for a single adult is about $19 per hour, and $36 per hour for an adult with one child, according to the MIT living wage calculator.
Noting that many museum employees are Black, Indigenous, people of color and transgender, Banks also echoed workers’ demands in the letter that explicit anti-discrimination policies be put in place. “We want to ensure that those folks are seen and their issues are heard; we want to make sure there’s no discrimination,” Banks said.
Regarding health and safety, workers’ demands in the letter for an overhaul of the museum’s safety policies and for paid sick leave come largely from three years of working through the Covid-19 pandemic.
“On my team we’re directly interacting with guests all the time. It’s important to us that the museum ensures (our safety),” said Banks. “And our tour guides, they’re really in tight, vulnerable spots with guests all day long. It’s important to them that those tours require masks to guarantee their safety.”
According to Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for Council 31, the push for Covid-19 protocols and sick leave also follow years of pandemic-induced layoffs at the museum. In the summer of 2020, Lindall said, more than 84 employees at the Hyde Park museum were laid and given two months of severance pay. When employees were invited to return in the fall of 2021, only 14 did so.
During this time, in April 2020 and March 2021, the museum received a total of $6.9 million from the federal pandemic Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), per PPP data. In 2019, the museum also received a $125 million donation — to be distributed in installments over five years — from then Chicago-based billionaire and Citadel hedge fund founder Ken Griffin. (In 2024, the museum will be renamed the Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science & Industry.)
With the announcement, the MSI workers joined a wave of union organizing at other museums and cultural institutions around Chicago. Since last January, workers at the Art Institute of Chicago, School of the Art Institute, Field Museum and Newberry Library have won union elections, all affiliating with AFSCME Council 31. Last month, more than a dozen workers at Lincoln Park’s Notebaert Nature Museum also launched a campaign to unionize with Council 31.
“We’ve definitely been uplifted and inspired by those movements,” Banks said. “(These wins) ignited a fire in us and made us feel more comfortable and willing to move forward.”
“There’s sometimes a stigma around unionization … people just assume it’s because we hate our jobs,” he added. “But really, we love our jobs. We enjoy interacting with guests, educating them, connecting with them. We want to be here and want to ensure that we can continue to be here.”
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