Milwaukee Art Museum workers petition trustees, seeking wage increase, first union contract

Milwaukee Art Museum workers are calling on leadership to solidify a first union contract.

Last updated on November 2nd, 2021 at 02:18 pm

Milwaukee Art Museum workers petitioned its board of trustees in letters this week that call on leaders to raise wages and solidify a first union contract.

The letters, which were sent in anticipation of MAM’s annual membership meeting Thursday, come nearly a year after the certification of museum workers’ union election with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.  

A group of over 70 employees have been engaged in first contract negotiations since February. In a letter posted publicly Wednesday, the group called on board trustees to support “workers’ desire for fair and living wages job security; career development; increased access to health insurance; diversity and equity in the workplace; and stronger health and safety protections.”

In response to the letter, the museum said in an emailed statement leaders have been working with union representatives to collaborate on an agreement.

“While we cannot comment on ongoing negotiations with the union, we do agree that the Museum’s staff and their contributions are an important part of fulfilling the Museum’s mission and strategic direction,” the statement said.

The workers’ letter said the majority were furloughed during 2020 and 2021, and 40% earn less than $14.15 hourly – the current living wage for a single Milwaukee County adult with no dependents, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. Nearly all positions in the bargaining unit are paid below the median wage for their positions, according to national association surveys, the group says.

“We ask that Museum leadership acknowledge that wages at the Museum have been below average long prior to the current moment. The financial solvency of the Museum cannot be shouldered onto the employees by paying below median, and below living, wages,” the group said.

Many museum departments have been hard hit by recent departures, including design, conservation, development and frontline staff. The museum will struggle to recruit and retain a diverse staff if it doesn’t raise wages, the employees contend.

“Counting just those employees covered by the contract, the museum has lost over 120 cumulative years of experience in the past four months,” the letter said. “For the museum to succeed, and to continue the important work of the museum, change is needed now.”

The museum in an emailed statement acknowledged it is an “unprecedented moment for the job market,” which has affected MAM and other businesses.

“Yet, during this uncertain period of time, the Museum has successfully recruited new talent and expertise that is fueling our mission in areas including human resources, community dialogue, information systems, design, education, and development, just to name a few,” the statement said.

MAM employees are among workers from several area businesses over the past year to pursue unionization.

A group of workers at Milwaukee-based Colectivo Coffee recently unionized under the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494. In August, the National Labor Relations Board completed the vote count, with Colectivo workers approving a proposal to unionize by a 106-to-99 vote.

In September, entertainment venue and eatery Bounce Milwaukee reopened after an 18-month shutdown as a union shop after its owners granted union representation to its employees through the Milwaukee Area Service & Hospitality Workers Organization.

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Lauren Anderson is an associate editor and covers health care, nonprofits and education for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism.

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