Milwaukee’s history as a manufacturing hub goes hand in hand with a long history of unions. But unions have impacted workspaces that go far beyond manufacturing — and the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted unsustainable practices in the workplace.
Workers at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) recently made their efforts to unionize public, although their organizing campaign started back in December. They cite pay disparities, a lack of diversity in management positions and “a culture of privilege” among their reasons for organizing.
"These are people who love, absolutely love, working at the art museum, but they just can’t support themselves. Most of them aren’t even offered health care, and those that are offered just can’t afford it anymore," says Scott Parr, assistant directing business representative for District 10 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW).
Parr says MAM employees have had a lot of issues in the workplace that predate the coronavirus pandemic. "They've always asked for fairness in wages, in benefits, having a seat at the table to have a voice that's actually heard by the art museum management," he notes.
Parr also says that part-time employees have one of the biggest problems, and the union plans on including both full- and part-time positions. "When you're a part-time employee at the art museum, you do not qualify for benefits. So a lot of people are categorized as part-time, but they're clocking in 40 hours a week — that is not fair," he says.
Security guards at the museum are currently represented by the IAMAW, and they've had a collective bargaining relationship that has been in place for decades, according to Parr.
"We recently ratified a new three-year contract for the security guards, and that helped drive this organizing drive for everybody else to say what's wrong with us having those same guarantees in writing?" he notes.
In addition to financial fairness and job security, MAM workers are also including a social justice component to their campaign to better reflect and reach out to the greater Milwaukee community. This would include not just hiring practices but art education outreach programs.
"I'm [often] asked ... how can a union affect that? And my answer to that is always well, we have, in a lot of our union contracts, union folks that sit on those hiring and interview committees and we help make those decisions," Parr explains.
The IAMAW has asked the MAM for voluntary recognition, but it was denied. "Our position is a majority have already said they wanted a union ... they've already spoken," says Parr. Since the MAM did not give voluntary recognition, IAMAW has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board and the museum has hired a Chicago law firm to defeat the union effort, according to Parr.
Only 30% of a workforce is required to organize a union, says Parr, and they have "a much, much higher number than that" at the MAM.
"We're not planning on taking these people into a losing battle," he says. "Our message is getting out there ... and it's been enjoyable educating people about the power they can have in their own workplace."