- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Workers at four museums in Pittsburgh — Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, and the Andy Warhol Museum — are unionizing with the United Steelworkers. It’s part of a trend of museum organizing that has been gathering momentum for several years.
Jacobin’s Alex Press spoke to Grace Marston, who has worked at the Andy Warhol Museum for eight and a half years, and Tom Fisher, who has worked at the Carnegie Museum of Art for six years, about unionizing, museum work, and what it means for a union to come home to Andrew Carnegie’s legacy institutions.
What led workers at these museums to unionize?
We’ve had some issues for a long time, even though we all do love our jobs and we love the work that we do. A lot of the workers feel like we don’t have a voice in major decisions. We’ve tried to go through the channels that management prefers to make changes, and it has not been effective. So we feel like a union is the best way to ensure that our voices are finally heard.
Workers at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh were interested in unionizing because there’s no seat at the table. We as an institute stand for community above all else: that’s our mission, our audience. Everything we put forth is about community, collaboration, conversation. The issue we face internally is those same values aren’t afforded to the staff as a community. It’s very hard to live with that disparity day in and day out. Your job function and expectations are all to uphold this idea of community, but we don’t have a collective voice. That’s the main driving force behind the union campaign — it’s to get a collective voice.
Are there particular issues that come up because of the lack of a seat at the table?
There is a whole host of the typical workplace issues. And that’s why we’re focused most on having a seat at the table — once you get that, you can raise your voice for all those issues. But it runs the gamut of issues: equity in pay, transparency is a big one, professional development, all the typical workplace issues.
What were the first steps you all took?
There were a couple of people at the Carnegie Museum of Art who had started talking about it late last year, and they reached out to the United Steelworkers (USW) in particular because they were so inspired by USW’s success with the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh. USW has provided a lot of great coaching and great guidance to help us expand this movement.
Colleagues specifically from the Carnegie Museum of Art met with the United Steelworkers. That was step one. USW very recently helped the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh to successfully mount a union campaign, and as a direct result of that, a small group of staff from the Carnegie Museum of Art sat down with the USW and started having conversations. From there, it spread. So early stages of organizing were establishing the partnership with USW as an affiliate and then taking the temperature of staff starting with the Carnegie Museum of Art.
What were those early conversations with coworkers like?
Those early conversations were an extension of day-to-day talk. Workplace conditions come up all the time, and I think the earliest conversations were an attempt to speak with coworkers, and in more specific terms, not just vent about the problems but to take the temperature of staff’s willingness to change them. And if they wanted to change them, how would they feel in terms of comfort level collectively as opposed to just voicing concerns up the chain of command? We were trying to assess if people were comfortable with doing this collectively.
Echoes of History
It’s weighted with history, to be organizing with the Steelworkers at the Carnegie museums. The announcement came on the eve of the 128th anniversary of the Battle of Homestead, where workers struck against the Carnegie Steel Company. It was a huge moment in US labor history.
It’s very much our history. It’s a perfect partnership between the USW and museum workers because their heritage is the same. It all comes from the rise of the steel industry in Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh being such a labor-oriented town. It’s interesting because the conversation you and I are having is very much the same conversation that started the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh in the first place.
You mentioned Homestead: that was 128 years ago to the day — the second was when Carnegie Steel locked out its workers. And it was the failings at Homestead, how it tarnished the reputation of Carnegie and of the steel industry, that led directly to the formation of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. That’s the moment people point to when Andrew Carnegie had a changing of ways and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to philanthropy instead of just accumulating wealth. So it’s been a really apt partnership, and tying it to this history.
This is also an anniversary year for us. This is 125 years of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and it’s just incredibly fitting to have this conversation now. It’s the same conversation we’ve been having for a century and a quarter, and it’s the conversation that got this all going in the first place.
We were very inspired by USW’s long legacy of empowering the workers of Pittsburgh. It seems very fitting and very appropriate to be uniting with the same workers who built the fortune that built the Carnegie museums.
There’s been a new energy around labor unions in this country, with a wave of museum unionization, along with unionization in other white-collar industries. Do you see your unionization effort as being connected to that broader story?
We’ve been very inspired by all the other museums across the country that have unionized over the past couple of years. Working in museums and the art world is very cool, but it’s not always as glamorous as it may look from the outside. Management assumes that because working at a museum is so awesome, they don’t need to offer competitive benefits or competitive wages.
You mention how desirable these jobs are for a lot of people. Did you encounter in your organizing conversation people who felt that maybe a blue-collar factory worker is the appropriate member of a union, but they don’t think they fit?
Not exactly. I more so encountered people who weren’t super familiar with unions and how unions work because they’ve never had a union job.
That isn’t something I encountered. We haven’t encountered much pushback from people thinking unions don’t fit for them. The main reason for that — outside of the libraries’ recent success, we share a building with them — is because labor and conversations around working conditions is the history of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Going back to the Homestead strike and the early labor organizing of the steel industry, people in this town are aware of this history. People who work at the museums are hyper-aware of it. So I think they have a better understanding than others might in the white-collar sectors, that yes, unions can apply to them and not only that, but it’s the very story we’re often telling. Much of our artwork and collections speak to labor organizing, unionizing, so I don’t think it’s an alien concept to a lot of the museum workers.
That’s interesting because Pittsburgh is so defined by union history.
It’s exciting to finally become a part of that history ourselves, especially since the Carnegie museums have been an institution in Pittsburgh for 125 years. It’s really a long time coming.
What things are you hoping to secure in your first contract?
It can go many different ways, and this is a very complicated time, but the main thing we’re hoping to get is a seat at the table and to be empowered to approach management with equal footing, with the support of the union behind us.
What’s the response from the museum been so far?
So far, they haven’t responded publicly. I’m not sure how they’re going to respond but given that this is an anniversary year, and given that this is our history, I feel that the museums are going to have to engage in this conversation. And not only that, I feel that they can benefit from having this conversation. From 2020 to 2021 the plan was to celebrate our legacy, and our legacy has everything to do with labor and working conditions. It’s the perfect time for all parties. It’s a very rich and important conversation, and people are going to pay attention to it in the museum sector because the museums can really position themselves as a leader in fostering these conversations given our history, whereas other institutions aren’t as deeply steeped in this labor history.
They’ve said they are aware of the union effort but not ready to publicly comment. I am still on furlough, so I’m not interacting with management directly right now.
That must be very complicated, organizing this while people are furloughed.
It is. The pandemic did make everything a lot more complicated, but I also think the pandemic exposed a lot of issues that existed at the museum and exacerbated a lot of those issues. So in one sense, it helped a little bit because some workers who were more comfortable in their jobs and more complacent or apathetic recognized that even if they’re comfortable, other workers have not been treated fairly. So some people have joined out of solidarity with those workers.
Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you would want people to know about this union drive?
I would just like to reemphasize that we all love the work that we do, and we’re all extremely passionate about our jobs. We just want to make our jobs better and make the museums better. It’s a labor of love, and it shows that we care about the museums.