Ben Boyce


Yes to the museum workers union

Posted on April 11, 2022 by Ben Boyce

There’s no doubt about it: we are in a union boom right now. This boom is being driven primarily by Millennials who are keenly aware that they missed out on the brief window of the great bonanza of post-war prosperity. A new wave of youthful union activism is achieving feats like organizing a huge Amazon distribution center in New York City and dozens of Starbucks sites. 

All over the country, magazine and web journalists, and arts and culture nonprofits are getting unionized at a record pace. Right here in Sonoma, the employees at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art are seeking recognition as Cultural Workers United (AFSCME DC57).

Marty Bennett, veteran local labor leader, recruited me to join a community delegation last Thursday in solidarity with the organizing campaign by museum workers at Sonoma Valley Art Museum. The museum director briefly popped out of her office to greet the delegation, headed by the museum workers union organizing committee leader, a union representative for AFSCME, the North Bay Labor Council, and the organizing director for North Bay Jobs with Justice. Notice was served: the staff wants a union. The workers will be asking that the employer voluntarily recognize the union, which has the support of a super-majority of workers.

Anyone who has spent time around the nonprofit arts and culture world knows that most of these organizations are built on excessive reliance on volunteer labor and poorly paid teaching and administrative staff. The most diabolical aspect of the low-wage dead-end culture sector nonprofit jobs is how they exploit the aspiration of young workers to have a career in the arts. Most of these jobs require a B.A. and years of specialized training, yet that highly trained labor is not even shown the respect of providing stable living wage jobs.

This false economy of “scarcity of prestige” is a management decision rooted in class domination, and it’s got to stop. That’s where the union comes in. They give the individual employee a real voice in the conditions of their labor and the dignity of steady remunerative work, with recourse against workplace abuses. It’s a better way to live.    

What the Millennials have seen in their young lives is the failure of the ‘free-market system’ and a steady downsizing of their expectations. Joining a union is now an avenue to take initiative to collectively improve your lot that is fun and exciting. Make the bosses have to speak with you as an equal. That’s a deep psychic reward of union organizing.

I loved the energy and excitement of this woman-led union crew. They deserve the level of respect that comes with their professional training and years of teaching and curating experience. The SVMA board would be well advised to not go to the dark side by hiring professional union-busting firms as is standard in the American corporate private sector. The reputational cost of conducting a bitter protracted contested union election will far exceed any budget savings achieved on the back of the very modestly paid staff.

There must be a change in governing ideology in the nonprofit board world. Nonprofit board members should be prepared to budget for a “living wage workplace” as a core aspect of the nonprofit mission.

You can’t build artistic excellence and deep community support on the foundation of a haphazard mix of volunteers and demoralized underpaid professional staff. The museum staffers don’t want a fight, they just want respect, agency, and a living wage. Just do it.

2 thoughts on “Yes to the museum workers union

  1. One of the best benefits of joining a union is you have protection against being an at will employee. Most states are at will. The employer can fire you for no reason. Plus, you can negotiate for reasonable hours, pay and benefits. One advantage the auto industry has, is it can bargain with a union representatives who represent thousands of employees in many locations who are professionals.

  2. Correct, Richard. Unions balance the playing field a bit. Better to negotiate the terms of your job than just have them unilaterally imposed on you as a solo individual.

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