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Minnesota Historical Society workers win their union despite daunting odds

Minnesota History Center, operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo credit: Richie Diesterheft)
Minnesota Historical Society workers win their union despite daunting odds
By Ezra Kane-Salafia ·
Minnesota Historical Society workers win their union despite daunting odds

Workers at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) have overwhelmingly voted to form a union through AFSCME Council 5.

They cited unaccountable management, low wages, uncompensated work, lack of transparency and stability, and other issues in their successful campaign, which culminated in victory in November when the National Labor Relations Board certified their election.

When the workers began organizing, they faced long odds. Much of the campaign took place remotely, with nearly 300 workers based at about 30 far-flung locations across Minnesota and often only working a few months a year.

But they persevered, and won, says Council 5 Executive Director Julie Bleyhl.

“Minnesota Historical Society workers have voted overwhelmingly to join our union to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect in the workplace,” she said.

MNHS workers are now in the next phase of their campaign – negotiating their first contract with management.

“They are working hard to codify dignity and respect into contract language,” said Bleyhl. “While these members tell the true story of Minnesota’s history, their organizing victory will chart a new future for nearly 300 MNHS workers who now join the fight for the working class."

Matt Cassady, an MNHS worker and a member of the organizing committee, said the biggest hurdle was distance.

“Most of the staff were still working remotely. Connecting with people remotely is hard,” he said. “For many of my colleagues, it was about having a voice in the work they are so passionate about.”

Kyle Imdieke, another organizing committee member agreed, but said organizing was also a wonderful opportunity.

“I lost track of the hundreds of miles I put on my car driving around to talk with co-workers and bring them cards to sign, but it always felt so worth it to visit old friends and meet co-workers I never would've had the chance to otherwise,” he said.

Again and again, workers at MNHS cited the same issues: the lack of transparency and pay equity, low wages, the expectation that they would perform unpaid labor, uncertainty for workers who interacted with the public, and more. The issues were so prevalent that the campaign was, in fact, born out of two separate organizing efforts that eventually merged into one.

For many of the front-line employees who interacted with the public, the part-time seasonal jobs were unsustainable. Management promised fixes to the hiring and benefits, but failed to deliver time and time again, organizers said.

“For months and months before the campaign, the administration has promised a vague revamp of our benefits and compensation,” said Imdieke. “They talked about it as a total solution and windfall to the workers. But it was just talk, no details, no schedule.”

Workers also cited unfulfilled promises around diversity and inclusion as a critical motivating factor.

“We have had so much committee work, recommendations and promises from management that went nowhere. We lost workers of color who pointed to these issues,” said Cassady. “Organizing was a way to help hold the organization as a whole accountable to those promises.”

“At the end the day, it was primarily about the front-line staff,” he added. “We all wanted them seen, to be heard, to be treated as professionals. The historical interpreters, the library workers, the visitor services staff are MNHS to the vast majority of our patrons. They deserve respect.”

More than just a union election victory, though, campaign was about solidarity.

“I’m confident in our future, now,” said Imdieke. “The relationships we built through this campaign, through our union, are strong enough to weather whatever is ahead of us.”

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