Museums, Unions and Creating a Culture of Transparency

KPEOXFYHNVAKFDMDA6IK6FHJ7Q

Museum leaders and unions are an oil and water combination. Unions and museum boards even more so. When the Guggenheim staff began its negotiations with the International Union of Operating Engineers in 2019 its director, Richard Armstrong, reportedly wrote, “I do not want to work with a third party who has very limited experience in the museum field, and whose membership is largely in the heating and air-conditioning and construction industries.” An unfortunate sentence, encapsulating snobbery, the wealth gap, and the rarified view from the museum bubble in just 32 words.

According to Bloomberg Law, there were 40 museums with union staff in 2019. Many union members work at urban organizations where a ridiculously high cost of living and ridiculously low hourly wage create a perfect storm of dissatisfaction. If you combine the museum world’s insistence that the job sector’s ticket for admission is a costly master’s degree with the field’s emphasis on a more diverse workforce, it’s clear what a house of cards we’ve built. In the ongoing union/not-union debate we all owe Art +Museum Transparency thanks for saying the emperor has no clothes. They brought you the Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency 2019 spread sheet (that, BTW, sparked other nonprofit industries to follow suit and was prompted by Kimberly Drew’s talk 2019 AAM talk ), and can be counted on to use their social media platform to decry poor pay and poor treatment of museum workers.

If you’re a museum leader, what scares you about unions? Is it the thought of actually having to discuss hourly compensation with a union negotiator, someone who talks salaries and benefits for a living? Is there a secret part of you, like the Guggenheim’s Armstrong, who believes union reps can’t possibly understand museum culture? Are you afraid to stand up for frontline staff with your board? Or do you believe you don’t need to pay your frontline workers because somehow there will always be a ready supply of retiree volunteers and desperate interns, willing to move through your galleries being knowledgable for the price of a few volunteer events or a great recommendation?

If you lead a museum, and the thought of unionization makes you anxious, consider what it’s like to earn a master’s degree and make $15 an hour. Please do not say we all have to start somewhere. We do, but in some of America’s biggest cities, cost of living long ago outstripped minimum wage. And does your museum or heritage site have a gender — or a racial — wage gap? If yes, what have you done to help close it? Unionization isn’t Nirvana, but according to the AFL-CIO its women members have a smaller gap than non-members, and the union itself is campaigning for #Paycheck Fairness Act. We are still waiting for the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2019, but last year the field was 49.5-percent women. Isn’t this the moment to take the pay equity seriously?

As a museum leader, how often do you meet with your hourly staff? And how transparent are you and your board about their wages and benefits? If you don’t want to bargain with a union, work toward creating a humane workplace with the understanding that an organizational culture predicated on secrecy around such corporate keystones as compensation ultimately affects wage growth and morale. Put together a compensation committee where exempt and non-exempt staff from across your museum or heritage organization meet with board members on a regular basis. Help everyone know what they don’t know. Help staff and board members understand what equity means, what your organization can afford, and what might happen elsewhere in the budget if the wage gap were fixed. And know by doing so, you’ll face hard conversations, as Susan Dominus writes in her New York Times article, “Breaking the Salary Sharing Taboo”:

Open discussions of pay lay bare some of the basic contradictions that govern so many workplaces, which claim to embrace their workers like family while insisting, all the while, on professionalism and discretion. They are communities whose members care about one another and yet also know that their respective right to belong is based on their utility, perceived or actual. To ask a co-worker her salary — especially one who has worked at an institution for years — opens up deeper, unsettling questions. How valued are you in this community? Are you more valued than I am, or beyond what I perceive as your worth? Or have you undervalued yourself, been timid, clueless, exploited?

Here’s a place to start: Employee Compensation: 2020 Best Practices for Nonprofits

Unions are appealing because staff want a voice, want to be taken seriously, and  compensated fairly. How often do historians and pundits comb through the past and point to the seeds of what happens decades later, saying see, “It was already here.” Museums who arrive in the mid-21st century with an old hierarchical model, and a huge wage gap between director and public-facing staff, may find themselves sitting down with union reps more often than they’d like. Why? Because museum staff has found its voice.

How many times has this blog ended with a plea for clear, transparent communication?The answer is too many to count. If you want staff support, if you want to lead the best museum your town or city’s ever experienced, you need everybody’s buy-in. From the fanciest board member to the housekeeping staff, they serve your organization. Give them the opportunity to talk about why, and compensate them accordingly.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. I recognize the 2020 conference season for museum people is well underway, and that barring disruption by COVID-19, hundreds of us will gather to meet and talk in the coming months. That said, isn’t it time we made 2021 the year of the museum worker because isn’t it time we spoke face-to-face about compensation, benefits, unions, workplace harassment, and the gender pay gap?

Image: The Globe and Mail


2 Comments on “Museums, Unions and Creating a Culture of Transparency”

  1. Michael Holland says:

    “Put together a compensation committee where exempt and non-exempt staff from across your museum or heritage organization meet with board members on a regular basis.”

    This is a very good suggestion!

    Too often, the connection between non-executive staff and the board is quite thin. And too often, museum staff are victims of their own success. When the collections are well-managed, exhibits are pretty, content is strong, visitorship is up, etc. and all of these positive metrics are attained by the efforts of a dedicated and passionate staff working at their current salaries, it’s difficult for board members (or the public) to look at a museum and see anything obviously wrong. (They don’t know what they don’t know.)

    Greater interaction between board and staff members could help make that relationship more robust, so that when decisions are being made about how resources are spent on compensation, the decision makers know the individuals who will be impacted. If they can identify more specifically what a staff member brings to the institution, what educations and skill sets we’ve built in order to be qualified for our jobs, and how our investment in ourselves (and by extension in our museum) aligns (or perhaps doesn’t) with our compensation, perhaps those decisions might be based on more than a spreadsheet or a mathematical calculus.

    Of course, that deeper relationship won’t make money magically fall from the sky, but if it helps ensure that limited resources are distributed more equitably, that’s progress. Better still, it might inspire broadening the goals of development efforts and make seeking funding for sustainable staff salaries a priority.

  2. […] Museums, Unions and Creating a Culture of Transparency […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s