Workers at the Field Museum in Chicago have been pushing to unionize throughout the fall. AFSCME, the largest union for cultural workers in the country, also represents workers at many Chicago libraries and at the Art Institute. In November, members of the Field Museum Workers United delivered a letter to CEO Julian Siggers demanding voluntary recognition of the union. After Siggers refused, the workers are now planning to pursue their campaign through an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. Sean Larson of Rampant spoke with several members of the organizing committee about the union drive and conditions at the Field Museum.
Could you give us a brief overview of what started this, what were the conditions that led to the idea of starting a union at the Field Museum?
Daniel Le: Museum employees started wanting to organize pretty early on in the pandemic. Stuff was already at a boiling point for staff workers at the museum and the pandemic really turned up the heat on everyone when we started seeing layoffs or furloughs. People were not getting work or being asked to do more to make up for certain staff cuts or early retirements. There were a lot of staff that were basically strong-armed into an early retirement in order for the museum to stay functioning as it was. So we were at a place where we all realized that none of our jobs were as secure as we had really felt. Not that we had very much security to begin with, but it was sort of like, we are a family in terms of who we work with immediately, and we hate seeing people leave. But we were expected to pick up the slack all on the same pay.
Zoe Albion: I think there’s sort of an understanding in the museum community that if you work at a museum, you’re really working there for the privilege of working there. The pay is really low. The hours are not great. You’re really encouraged to work a lot extra. In a lot of cases, you really have to fight for funding. And I think museums like the Field are kind of a perfect storm because they have exacerbated a lot of these situations. For example, the Field Museum pays really poorly in a very expensive, large city.
We rely so heavily on these short-term grant staff that don’t become permanent positions, they depend on a temporary grant. I know people who have worked 10, 15 years just grant-hopping around. There’s no stability in that. You don’t know at the end of those one or two years of a grant term if you’re gonna have a job. You may have been working at the museum for 15 years and then August or whatever comes and you don’t have a job anymore. There’s a bit of a general culture of accepting those conditions. I think Field Museum workers in particular, because it’s such an amazing museum and because there are such amazing collections, are kind of encouraged to be grateful for what we have.
And what we have is an amazing community and an amazing collection. And what we don’t have are the working conditions that give us the ability to continue to work with those amazing people in that amazing collection. So if we’re not able to support ourselves and to provide for ourselves and our families, then obviously we can’t do that work that makes the museum what it is anymore.
Paúl Sambrano: The Keller Science Action Center, where I work, is more like a separate NGO attached to the museum. Since I started a year and a half ago, at least six people or half of our team have left to go to other, better-paying institutions. Some people worked here for 5 or 10 years, and it was crazy to see how quick people left, including our director who left a month ago. Almost everyone who left went on to do some of the same jobs, but the positions were better paid elsewhere. That has meant that a lot of extra work was left behind. On paper, we are supposed to work 35 hours per week, but no one does that. Everybody works at least 50 hours per week or more. When you have a big project or event, you definitely work a 60 or 70 hour-week without even thinking about it: late nights responding to emails and texts, you know? That’s not a work/life balance.
And that’s one reason that having a union, having workers organize things, brought people together. You start talking to people and then you hear other stories about people depending on grants, or people having the same pay for 10 years without a raise or promotion. Then the promotions are very subjective–there’s not really a clear path for anyone to get to the next level. Some things are on paper, but it’s not really clear for anybody working there.
Zoe Albion: Just to add to that: many, if not all departments are massively understaffed. Like, massively, massively understaffed. And so in addition to having people be overworked, there’s no room for growth. Like there’s no room for advancement.
Daniel Le: On top of there being serious understaffing issues, when the salaries of management come to light, it is deeply upsetting. It’s a slap in the face.
By and large, throughout the industry and internationally, museum work culture is very competitive. Sometimes people look at our workplace and say, oh, it’s not as bad as in other places where workers are abused.
I’ve been here for 10 years, and some staff have been here even longer. For some of the older staff, it’s almost a rite of passage to be at the museum for that long, to have done so much hard labor in service of the museum. And management really leverages that mindset when they make new hires. We have such a high rate of turnover for younger staff that come out of college, staff that come from internships. And the older staff will just say, well when I was your age, I bounced around from all these different places, or I’ve been here and done all of this stuff in service of this institution. So, you know, just put in your time. Do more work for free. I mean, right now it has gotten to the point where it is too much. The quality of life for museum workers is pretty subpar. And we are all owed at least a living wage.
So a living wage and more staffing seem to be important issues. What are the other issues that Field Museum workers are trying to change?
Daniel Le: The way they are dealing with health insurance is embarrassing. They had delayed the open enrollment for benefits for a long time, and when it finally came out, they unveiled all these changes. The cost per employee has skyrocketed–in some cases as much as 40 percent increase. It doesn’t make any sense. And when confronted about these changes, it gets glossed over. It gets dismissed and it’s not really addressed to our entire staff.
The health benefits are really puzzling and awful, but it’s sort of an underlying symptom of how we feel pretty unheard and not really considered when they make huge staff-wide changes like this. They had been going through these negotiations with our health insurance company and at any point they could have given us a heads up about potential changes. But then they just dropped it all on us and gave us a two-week window to enroll. That’s when they decided to do the Q&A sessions, where they don’t really answer anything. It’s pretty stifling and a really stressful two weeks for all of our staff and they wouldn’t give us the grace just to address it in our all-staff meeting for everyone, they kept saying to just bring it to them individually and then we’ll talk about it.
When we talk about salaries too, we see huge discrepancies between management and staff or even between different departments. I feel like those are the big hitters for wanting to organize.
Zoe Albion: With the health insurance it wasn’t just that it became more expensive. They completely eliminated vision, they changed our dental provider, so most people had to change dentists, which is a really frustrating process. And they cut a lot from the plans at the bottom. So for me, I didn’t have a choice. I just had to pick the cheapest plan which was a 47% increase. So I went from paying $27 to, I’m now gonna have to pay almost $40 out of every check. And that was something that I had to adjust my budget for within two weeks. No amount of Q&A sessions are going to fix that. So that is a genuine calculation for me: am I able to afford having this job?
Paúl Sambrano: What we want is better working conditions in terms of the workload, but of course that is related to how much people get paid. And if you want to work more, you should get paid more. But also just transparency on decision-making. That’s one of the big asks, because all the decisions are made without anybody knowing. And it’s a big secret how much the executive team makes–you can’t ask about that, or how you can advance, etc.
Who all is included in the union? What category of Field Museum worker is involved?
Anders Lindall: We’re organizing what’s called a wall-to-wall union, so it’s really everybody, from the folks in the gift shop or selling tickets to the folks that are working with the collection, to those doing research, to those who are doing the behind the scenes work that is so often taken for granted. It’s maintenance and it’s the cleaning crew all the way to folks who are mounting the dinosaur bones or they’re working on repatriation of artifacts. It’s wall to wall. There are about 330 employees included.
How have the conversations with your fellow workers been going?
Daniel Le: I feel like the conversations have been really good. I was heavily involved the last time there was organizing happening during the beginning of the pandemic, and there was some reluctance there, people weren’t really sure what it would mean to organize. But this time around, being associated with AFSCME and having this relation to organizing at other museums, that has boosted confidence in this movement. It’s not just the issues like health insurance benefits, which happened in the last few weeks, driving this. It’s feeling like we don’t have a real seat at the table, that we’re being controlled by management as opposed to working with management in order to allow the museum to function.
We’re just being controlled. So the lack of transparency has been a really big frustration. And the fact that we decide how things go moving forward and having a real seat at the table, that is, that is a really big part of the unionization drive.
Zoe Albion: For me one of the most impactful and rewarding parts of organizing has been talking to employees that have been here 10, 20, 30 years and hearing their stories. A lot of people suffer in silence. I have talked to a lot of folks who have explained to me that their spouse has to work a higher paying job in order for them to follow their dreams and work at the museum.
I know a lot of folks who have really struggled over the years to pay for healthcare and put their kids through school. Many of them have master’s degrees, PhDs, or a lot of experience. In many other situations, they would not be having the difficulties that they do.
There’s a lot of institutional knowledge of people who have been working here a lot longer than me. There have been smaller struggles throughout the last 30 years: workers trying to gain better rights, workers having concerns and complaints about staffing issues, staffing surveys being dispensed. A lot of the problems that we’re dealing with today have been dealt with for a long time.
And I think one thing we want to say as a union is enough. We don’t want people to need a spouse to work here, period. Nevermind a spouse with a higher paying job just to be able to work here. We don’t want people to have to quit or take a second job when they can’t afford their bills. That’s really not in the spirit of an institution of learning or the Field Museum specifically.
Paúl Sambrano: It’s been really good to connect with other coworkers just to hear their stories. I have heard about PhD researchers having a weekend job as a server working for a catering company. I was like, how’s that possible? This person who’s discovering new species! She has already left, obviously for a better-paying job.
Everybody just wants to express how much they love working at the museum because of the community. There are issues in some places, but overall it feels like a family, there’s a lot of camaraderie, people really like each other and like working with each other.
So then there’s this movement to get all the workers together, not just one center but like, a push for everybody to help everybody. That kind of thing really brings out the spirit of the union. We see the discrepancy between what the museum keeps saying, that they have their doors open, that they’re here to listen. But then we get their anti-union emails, and they just choose a different healthcare system and increase the cost without asking anybody. That’s a huge discrepancy between what they say and what they do, and I think it’s helping to bring people together.
Zoe Albion: Yeah and it’s entirely to their detriment. There have been so many people that have really wanted to make this community better and do really good work with the museum, and they’ve not been able to hold the job here. And so they move on to other places. I think that by unionizing we can really add the value we deserve to our own community.
Right, absolutely. Could you speak a bit more about organizing cultural workers more broadly and how you see this campaign within that context?
Anders Lindall: Yeah for sure. You know, I actually did a radio interview recently and the host started off by saying, why are these museum workers so grumpy? And I said, man, I really take issue with that. They’re organizing out of love. They love these institutions and they want them to not just have world-class reputations, but actually be good places to work too.
And you know, working at the Field Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago or the Newberry Library, that’s not just a job. That should be a career that you can advance, you can sustain a family. Where you don’t just pay your bills but thrive and maybe even take a vacation once in a while.
And looking across the country, it’s a similar experience: cultural workers have essentially been told for so long, “you’re lucky to work here because this is an iconic institution.” But the phrase that you hear a lot is true: you can’t eat prestige.
So, all of these other cultural workers have been organizing unions in Chicago and elsewhere, and even beyond cultural workers, there have been unionizing waves at Starbucks and some efforts at Amazon and other places. How do you all view those campaigns and your own in relation to them?
Daniel Le: It’s been awesome. It’s been really, really cool and really encouraging. I came from the Art Institute as a student. And I knew the problems with being faculty there. I almost wanted to go into teaching higher education. But knowing what I knew about it, I didn’t want to put myself through more debt or anything in order to have a degree that would just put me in another undervalued and oversaturated career.
When the workers at the Art Institute formed their union, it was such a good boost for morale. And then talking to people who aren’t associated directly with the movement. There’s been a big movement supporting unions and labor. I’ve been getting that from my friends and family, about how workers across the United States are severely undervalued, and this is a working country. So it’s pretty amazing to get that kind of feedback, like we’re doing something that really is necessary, that we need, and we have support from people that don’t necessarily experience exactly what we do, but understand the need.
What are your next steps?
Anders Lindall: As a private employer, the Field Museum falls under the National Labor Relations Board. Signed union cards from 30 percent of the workers in a prospective bargaining unit is the minimum to schedule an NLRB election. But this group is not goofing around with 30 percent, they’ve already got a strong majority of their coworkers who have signed cards, and that’s growing all the time because these conversations continue to happen, more folks are coming out of their silos, and enthusiasm is growing.
As an example, there were some coworkers who had not been involved before who came out of the museum for their lunch on the day of our public rally, and they came out and signed cards and joined the crowd right there.
So it’s always growing. And when the organizing committee decides the time is right, they’re going to file for their election. Then it will be worked out between the Field Museum Workers United, the NLRB, and management. The management has a say in the process as to when, where, and how the election should be held.
A lot of people are in similar situations or just generally understand the importance of solidarity. How can people support you?
Zoe Albion: The petition I think is a good place to start: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/add-your-name-to-support-field-museum-workers-united.
Anders Lindall: Yeah this is a great way for people just to add their name and they can add a comment about what the Field Museum means to them and why they support the organizing campaign. But then it also adds folks to the Field Museum Workers United email list so that they can continue to get updates as the campaign goes on. People can also follow us on social media at @ILCWUAFSCME, which is for all of AFSCME’s cultural worker organizing in the Chicago area, but really heavy on Field content right now. And that’s on Insta, Twitter and Facebook.