2021 was a year marked by “the new normal.” As the world continued to navigate the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers once again found themselves navigating uncharted territory when it came to workplace safety and other longstanding issues exacerbated by the pandemic. This, in addition to rising demands for equitable labor, solidified a new normal that is here to stay in the cultural sector: union power.
From strong contract wins to organizing victories, check out CWU’s 2021 year of union power below*:
Walker Worker Union, AFSCME Council 5: In October 2021, workers at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis unanimously approved a historic first contract that includes major improvements around layoff and recall rights, six weeks of paid family leave (there was none previously) and raises averaging 11% over the five- year contract term.
MOCA Union, AFSCME District Council 36: Workers at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, who unionized back in August 2020, continued their fight for a fair contract last year. While negotiations are still ongoing, MOCA Union has already made headway with victories such as a sick leave Tentative Agreement that gives all bargaining unit employees the right to accrue paid sick leave, a benefit that is especially important given the prevalence of COVID-19. Other tentative agreements will allow union information to be accessible on all work sites and provide employees with 15-minute rest breaks in facilities that will be maintained by MOCA.
Support was also felt across the union when AFSCME Council 8 and the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE) in Columbus marched on the incoming executive director of MOCA to deliver a letter signed by 70% of MOCA employees around achieving a fair contract.
MNHS Workers Union, Council 5: An overwhelming majority of workers at the Minnesota Historical Society voted yes by mail ballot and ended the year with recognition of their union in November. The bargaining unit consists of 312 workers who are eager to begin contract negotiations this year.
Niles-Maine District Library, Council 31: In June of last year, nearly 100 librarians, patron support staff and other library workers decided it was time to unionize. Faced with threats to cut funding and reduce staff and programs by newly elected conservative board members, workers filed a majority-interest petition with the local panel of the Illinois Labor Relations Board. Their unionization efforts received widespread support from community leaders, labor allies, and local and state elected officials who penned a letter to the library board supporting library workers and opposing cuts to library services and staff. By September, the group had overwhelmingly voted to recognize their union under the representation of AFSCME Council 31.
Last fall, AFSCME Cultural Workers United published an expansive report, “Cultural Institutions Cashed In, Workers Got Sold Out,” which investigated whether cultural institutions that received loans through the Payroll Protection Programs (PPP) truly prioritized their workers during the pandemic. The report found that cultural institutions with large endowments and multimillion-dollar budgets received millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded loans, yet collectively furloughed or laid off 14,400 workers. In some cases, many of those same institutions ended FY 2020 with budget surpluses. The data also revealed that unionized workers experienced 28% fewer job cuts and enjoyed more safety protections on the job than their non-unionized counterparts during the pandemic. To download the AFSCME CWU Report visit https://report.culturalworkersunited.org/.
Art Institute of Chicago Workers United, AFSCME Council 31: Last August, workers at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) announced the formation of Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU). Committed to providing staff with a voice in the museum’s decision-making process, workers were motivated to begin organizing their union after AIC furloughed 76 workers in 2020 and another 109 workers at the start of 2021. In an amazing show of solidarity, AICWU became one of the most unique cultural organizing campaigns after expanding to include staff at the neighboring School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Workers at both AIC and SAIC spent the last few weeks in 2021 voting in their union election and together the group of 500 employees recently won their union election!
Longwood Public Library, CSEA: 89 part-time workers at Longwood Public Library ended the summer by joining their full-time colleagues under the union representation of CSEA. The group of part-time workers, who were voluntarily recognized, witnessed their full-time colleagues enjoy paid holidays and other benefits of a union contract and were excited to receive the same benefits.
2021 served as a big year for organizing in Baltimore, MD. Last year, both Walters Workers United and BMA Union announced their intent to form a union with AFSCME Council 67.
Workers at the Walters Art Museum have since collected over 400 signatures of support from community members and allies, held a rally for recognition and respect and received the support of Baltimore City Council and the City Comptroller for a third party union election that would give workers the opportunity to vote yes for a strong wall-to-wall union.
Close by, a delegation of workers from the Baltimore Museum of Art Union were met with a big show of support and solidarity from co-workers and supporters after the meeting.
As workers whose jobs involve serving the public, both groups ended the year dedicated to securing a union election through the city of Baltimore.
*Note that this is not an exhaustive list of CWU activity in 2021.