Tacoma Art Museum: Union-busting Like It’s 1947

By Patrick Sugrue, Director of Communications, AFSCME Council 28/WFSE

Photos courtesy of AFSCME Council 28 (WFSE)

The fundamental right for workers to form unions was codified into law when the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1935, the same year the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) was founded. Now, 88 years later, workers at TAM are seeking to exercise that right.

Tacoma has always been a union town. The NLRA came into being in no small part thanks to a surge in activism by tens of thousands of underpaid, poorly-treated West Coast timber and dock workers, many of them right here in Tacoma.

As TAM Workers United, workers hope to help the museum accomplish its mission to “inspire broader perspectives and cultivate a compassionate future.” Workers say that the museum’s stated commitment to social justice is not reflected in the way workers are treated.

Kellz Moylan served on TAM’s Teen Art Council and worked at the summer camp before joining TAM as staff in 2020. As a Visitor Services Representative, they are tasked with welcoming guests and answering visitors’ questions about the exhibits. 

“I love working at TAM because I can interact with the public while they’re interacting with art,” Kellz said. “I see TAM as a community resource of art and art-making and also a platform to create more accessibility for people who aren’t normally into the arts. I started on the Teen Art Council when I was 16 because we were planning events for other teenagers.” 

TAM caps Kellz’s hours at 29.5 hours a week so they are ineligible for health benefits. TAM does not pay workers in Visitor Services a living wage per MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, even when calculated for a single adult with no children. Some workers report being unable to afford to take time off even when they are sick. 

“If you look at the makeup of our staff and our identity traits—racial identities, gender identities, sexual orientation—the frontline staff who work in Security and Visitor Services are the most diverse and also are paid the least,” Kellz said. “The museum knows about this serious equity issue. They take note of those staff member traits to take advantage of diversity-based grants.”

Over 80 percent of eligible workers signed union authorization cards prior to going public in October 2022. Union support is strong in every museum department.

So why hasn’t TAM Workers United been certified as a union yet?

The NLRA identifies two ways workers can form a union: 1. the employer voluntarily recognizing the union and 2. an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Both options require a simple majority of workers, which TAM Workers United comfortably surpasses with their supermajority of support. 

The TAM Board of Trustees refused to voluntarily recognize the union in November 2022, citing voluntary recognition as “sidestep[ing] the legal process through which employees vote on union representation.” This of course is false. 

Voluntary recognition is one of the two ways workers can form a union. The famed “union avoidance” law firm Seyfarth Shaw, LLP that TAM hired surely told the Board that. They may have also told the Board about the “guard exclusion” section of the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed in 1947. It says that if a union is certified via an NLRB election, security workers cannot be in the same union as their non-security coworkers. 

For the Star Wars fans out there: if the NLRA is A New Hope, the Taft-Hartley Act is The Empire Strikes Back. Big business and Southern segregationists drafted Taft-Hartley to roll back provisions of the NLRA that had promised to allow all workers—Black workers in the South, women, immigrants, and other marginalized communities—to have a say in the workplace and lift themselves into the middle class. 

One of the most ardent supporters of the Taft-Hartley Act was Texas business magnate and white supremacist Vance Muse, who warned that without laws curbing union organizing, “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” 

In myriad ways, the Taft-Hartley Act found ways to benefit “professional” workers, who tend to be white, higher-income, cisgender, heterosexual, and male, and exclude “non-professional” workers, who tend to be Black and brown, lower-income, female, and transgender/non-binary. 

One provision that accomplished this was the “guard exclusion” section, which the U.S. Supreme Court warned made “the collective bargaining rights of guards distinctly second-class.” This is the law the TAM Board is relying on. 

The decision to deny voluntary recognition fulfills the goals of a blatantly discriminatory law. It isolates the most diverse segment of TAM workers—who are paid the least, who don’t have health insurance, and who have the greatest safety concerns—from their coworkers and diminishes their ability to advocate for themselves. 

J. Garza, an artist who works in Security and has kept the museum safe for visitors for the past seven years, recently told me about being physically assaulted on the job last year. 

“It’s usually just me,” they said, “not two security staff at a time like it used to be. I just want fair wages and to have the proper staffing levels. I’d like to come to work and not worry about being assaulted. I feel anxious every day that something will happen.”

I don’t want to believe that the TAM Board is racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. But I cannot deny that their actions are. Do they know that they are taking advantage of a discriminatory law, which is being used for discriminatory ends? 

Like other museums that have denied voluntary recognition, TAM is likely to argue that Visitor Services workers like Kellz are “security” and should be excluded. TAM Board President Jeff Williams told union organizers and community members after the January TAM Board meeting that Development employees should not be in the same union as Visitor Services employees because they don’t share working conditions in common.

If the TAM Board is simply concerned about workers having the opportunity to “express their decision through a private vote,” as they have stated, there is good news. The vote does not need to be conducted via the NLRB, and it does not need to be tainted with Jim-Crow-era provisions that prevent the most marginalized workers from participating.

The vote can be conducted via a neutral third-party, as was the case for workers at Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and others. TAM Workers United submitted a request for just this kind of election and requested the Board approve it at their meeting on March 23.

Local elected officials urging the TAM Board to agree to this proposal include WA State Senators Yasmin Trudeau, T’wina Nobles, Steve Conway, and Karen Keiser and Washington State Democrats Chair Shasti Conrad. On March 22, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and the entire Tacoma City Council called on TAM to review its anti-racist policies and negotiate with the workers’ union.

All who support TAM Workers United are encouraged to join the recognition rally Thursday, March 23 at 5 pm outside the museum while the Board holds its March meeting. The Board may decide to move its meeting to avoid hearing from the community about their treatment of TAM workers, but the rally will go on as planned regardless. Those who cannot attend are encouraged to write a message to the Board here.

Editor’s Note:

In the interest of transparency, we should note that TAM has been a financial supporter of Grit City Magazine. You can read a statement from the Tacoma Art Museum Board of Trustees here.

Follow TAM Workers United here:

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