This past weekend, many workers at the Museum of Science and Industry voted to unionize. According to unofficial results released by AFSCME, nearly three quarters of employees who voted cast a ballot in favor of representation.
“We’re really just trying to make the museum a better place,” said Margy LaFreniere of Museum of Science and Industry Workers United, which AFSCME says will now represent about 140 employees.
But LaFreniere, an education project manager, says pro-union workers at the Museum of Science and Industry have been called bullies and faced heavy pressure.
“Upper management have stopped by my desk upwards of five times a day sometimes,” she said. “It feels like there’s undue pressure to not support my colleagues.”
In a statement, the Museum of Science and Industry said: “We respect an employee’s right to choose or decline union representation … Our priority is to continue building our positive workplace culture that supports the Museum of Science and Industry and benefits the greater Chicago community.”
The vote is part of a recent pro-labor push, which many backers say was spurred in part by the effects of COVID-19. The move to unionize at MSI is the latest in a string of museums and other cultural institutions in Chicago, which has also included the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and Newberry Library.
The wave began with the Art Institute. Paper conservator María Cristina Rivera says her job is a great blend of art and science, but that the work environment could be challenging.
“The values that we had were very aspirational — we were not living them, whereas management seemed to come from a place where they thought this was a reality,” Rivera said.
The Art Institute’s union election was certified in January of 2022. Rivera says they’ve been bargaining for more than a year, and that she wants to see good wages and benefits secured for full and part time employees.
“I think our management representatives took a long time to come to the table with a headspace where they were bargaining in good faith. I think we’re getting closer to that,” she said.
In a statement, the Art Institute says it “deeply values” its employees and wants to meet their needs: “We are pleased with the progress we have made, have agreement on nearly all non-economic provisions, and are having productive discussions around an economic proposal. We are optimistic we can reach an equitable agreement.”
Field Museum workers aren’t as far along in the process — their election results were certified in March. Adrienne Stroup works with vertebrate fossils in the collections department. She says the high turnover rate was one reason she backed the unionization effort. Even though they haven’t started bargaining yet, Stroup says organizing has helped bring together workers who were once far more siloed.
“People have very different roles from housekeeping to collections to PR,” Stroup said. “Everybody is very skilled, but very, very specific skills, and so we want to make sure everybody is heard and we can address things that affect everybody.”
In a statement after the union election this spring, the Field Museum said: “While the election process produced strong feelings and contrasting views, we are once again unified in serving our visitors, our community, and our world. Our management team is ready to begin good-faith bargaining over an initial contract with AFSCME.”
MSI facilitator Al Pope echoed Stroup’s concerns. A lifelong museum attendee turned employee, Pope said greater protections for workers of all backgrounds will also benefit visitors.
“I think it’s very important for people to get informal science education from people that look like them age-wise, body-type wise. We have lots of gender non-conforming folks,” Pope said. “We have visibility and that is great, but visibility is not always in a positive way, and we’re trying to protect each other in that way too.”