Recent years have seen an upsurge of labor organizing in museums and cultural institutions across the United States. Workers at over a dozen museums have successfully voted to unionize since 2019, and more have recently launched union drives. A spirit of solidarity among cultural workers at different institutions has encouraged information sharing, which played a major role in the growth of this movement. However, forming a bargaining unit and negotiating for a contract remains an arduous, multi-stage process that requires strength and determination in the face of reluctant administrations and hesitant co-workers. That is why a group of Bay Area artists with experience in unionizing has released the multi-part risograph-printed booklet series Organizing Power, an A-Z guide for museum workers on how to successfully form a union and have a seat around the table.
The series was born out of artist Jessalyn Aaland’s 2018-19 fellowship at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Art (YBCA). At the time, Aaland was a senior educator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where she worked from 2014 to 2019. There, she participated in negotiating two union contracts with the museum as a member of a workers union formed in 2017.
“Negotiating a simple pay increase was brutal,” Aaland told Hyperallergic in an interview. “We went into mediation because we could not get the museum to give us what we owed after eight months of work.”
Jessalyn Aaland’s Public Square project at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Art (YBCA) in 2018
At the YBCA, Aaland and other fellows were asked to respond to the question: “How might we re-imagine political power?” Aaland’s response was organizing a series of discussions with labor organizers, historians, and museum workers who have unionized within a framework called Public Square, culminating in a limited series of 500 artist-made booklets with comprehensive information and tips on all stages of organizing a union drive. The booklets are also available for free download in PDF format.
“Unions are a tool that already exists in the world, but very few Americans are really aware of what a union is and can do,” Aaland explained. “In considering political power, I thought: What if we could update the information around this tool? Make it really accessible and appealing to an art audience, and demystify the process.”
A fold from Volume 1 of Organizing Power
For the project, Aaland teamed up with Ana Fox-Hodess and Martin Oropeza, both former members of the SFMOMA union’s bargaining committee, and Nat Naylor, the director of representation for San Francisco’s OPEIU Local 29, which represents SFMOMA’s workers. Designed by Paul Morgan and illustrated by Tanna Tucker, who are both based in the Bay area, the booklets convey the convoluted process of union organizing in a digestible, eye-catching form.
“Information about unions isn’t always aesthetically appealing,” said Aaland. “I wanted to create an artist book that would appeal to an art audience.”
In 2019, Aaland and her collaborators released the first volume of the series, which includes a step-by-step guide to organizing a union, from winning the support of co-workers to negotiating a contract. The 20-page booklet also lists illegal union-busting tactics by employers such as retaliating against union organizers; attending a union meeting or engaging in undercover surveillance; increasing employees’ wages or benefits to keep them out of the union; asking employees how they intend to vote; or announcing that the organization will not bargain with a union. It also features quotes from the panel discussions and artwork from the 2019 Oakland teachers’ strike.
Volume 2 of Organizing Power breaks down the arduous process of negotiating a union contract with the museum’s management
The second part of the series, released earlier this year, guides workers through the difficult process of negotiating a union contract. It breaks down the challenges of the bargaining process with contributions from workers who successfully unionized at the New Museum, MoMA PS1, the Frye Museum, and others. The online version of the booklet also includes a Google Drive folder of example contracts, links to organizer resources, and a wage proposal calculation spreadsheet.
According to Aaland, demand for the booklets has been high, with hundreds of copies already shipped to museum workers across the country. Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art said the resource helped them in forming their union last year, she reports, and newly formed unions at institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis have also used them. A third volume is in the works, focusing on creative organizing strategies that arts and cultural workers have used, like button campaigns and other artistic actions.
Pro-union buttons distributed by Jessalyn Aaland during her fellowship at YBCA
The recent renaissance of labor organizing at museums and cultural institutions was boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which spurred mass furloughs and layoffs of vulnerable museum workers.
“The pandemic is really the match lighting the tinder that’s been building up for years,” Aaland said. “For a long time museum and cultural workers have been dealing with pay disparities, struggling to survive in this economy like so many other workers, and dealing with the overwork resulting from underfunded nonprofits (and in many cases, bloated expansions that do nothing to alleviate workload or value workers through salary increases).”
“The difficulty of the pandemic has lit a fire under a lot of people, and a determination to improve things,” the artist added. “Workers have had it and have decided to do something about it. And the more museums and cultural institutions that organize, the more it seems like something you can actually accomplish, a power you can actually gain if you organize in solidarity with your colleagues.”