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Art Institute school and museum staff win first contract

Photo credit: AFSCME Council 31
Art Institute school and museum staff win first contract
By AFSCME Council 31 Staff ·

More than 500 workers at the Art Institute of Chicago’s museum (AIC) and affiliated school, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), who are members of the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU/AFSCME), have won a first contract that not only brings wage increases, but begins to address critical workplace culture issues that have plagued workers for years.

The Art Institute is home to one of the world’s most renowned art collections and SAIC is internationally recognized as one of the best art schools in the country.

Under the four-year agreement, wages will increase at least 12.25% and as much as 16.25% across the board, with lower-paid employees receiving higher increases.

The workers also won ratification bonuses, yearly merit increases, pay for bilingual work and other wage-related gains, as well as a grievance procedure and more paid time off, among other things.

A common refrain from cultural workers organizing nationwide is: “We can’t eat prestige.” They are referring to the idea that prestigious institutions like the Art Institute have tried to justify lower wages and salaries based on how desirable the positions are. One key motive for forming a union with AFSCME was that workers wanted to secure a stronger voice on the job. 

Kyla Thomas, a member of the bargaining committee and a manager of distribution operations at AIC’s off-site warehouse, says her colleagues at the warehouse have felt disrespected and mistreated by certain managers, and saw discipline meted out in unfair or arbitrary ways. In the past, it’s led to people either suffering in silence or simply leaving for other job opportunities.

Briana Shucart, an admissions technology specialist at SAIC, said she was inspired to join the bargaining committee after seeing how much effort organizers put into generating support for the union and winning the vote.

“You get out of a union what you put into it,” she said. “And I knew I was interested in being a part of that experience.”

Fresh off the victory of their union election in December 2021, the bargaining committee was initially optimistic about management’s approach to bargaining. But that optimism faded as they saw how determined management negotiators were to quibble extensively over minor issues like union bulletin boards and storage space for union materials.

After passing the one-year anniversary of when they started bargaining and frustrated with how slow things were progressing at the table, the bargaining committee wanted to send a message that they wouldn’t tolerate it anymore. They decided to begin collecting money for a strike fund.

To Herb Metzler, a member of the bargaining committee and a technician in the museum’s collections department, that was when management’s tone at the table began to change.

“That was when the museum came to the table and let us know they wanted to resolve this,” Metzler said. “They started to budge, and we saw them come up on some of the proposals rather than us coming down.”

Within days, they had reached a tentative agreement. The bargaining committee unanimously agreed to recommend it to their co-workers. The AICWU membership ratified it overwhelmingly.

The bargaining committee also won provisions that will help employees build careers, requiring job openings to be posted internally first and qualified in-house applicants will be guaranteed an interview.

And the contract forms standing labor-management committees that will give workers an enhanced voice in departmental policies.

“Now we have a way to say, ‘Hey, you can’t do this to me,’” Thomas said. “There will be a union rep. by your side in all disciplinary meetings. That’s going to be a huge culture shift.”

Faculty of SAIC are still at the bargaining table, negotiating their first contract as well. Non-tenured faculty of SAIC overwhelmingly voted to form a union late last year, winning their union with 92% support.

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