We are lucky in Maine to have a world-class art museum in the Portland Museum of Art. The quality of both its collections and its management is unusual for an institution in a small state such as ours. So it was with surprise and dismay that I read recently that the museum’s management is actively trying to prevent the formation of a union among its employees.

The world of museums and galleries is already seen by many as a bastion of privilege. With collections dominated by work from white men of European origins, or art stolen from Indigenous cultures around the globe, museums are struggling to decolonize. The emergence in recent years of museum spaces – and even positions on a museum’s staff – named after corporations or donors has only encouraged further the impression that museums cater to privilege. At its best, however, art is a potent agent of insight and enrichment of the spirit, and nothing is inherent in those qualities that says it should be restricted to a few among the wealthy.

Ever since the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, corporate power has succeeded in marginalizing unions and preventing new ones from forming. The obvious result has been a level of divergence in wealth unequaled since the end of the last gilded age at the end of the 19th century. Outside of the cult of economic theory fostered by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School that has dominated our culture for the last 50 years, agreement is widespread that our culture’s disparities in wealth will not yield as long as organized labor remains in its currently weakened state.

Capitalism is founded on the notion that competition is a positive social force. It is ironic, therefore, that among corporate management there is widespread belief that having a union competing with the interests of management threatens well-being. Unions really are a threat to entrenched wealth, but the entrenchment of wealth is itself a threat to the interests of the entire culture. In my view, and that of an increasing number of others, a balance of power between labor and management is actually necessary for a healthy institutional culture.

Over the past decade, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with both staff and management at the PMA. I am happy to report that, without exception, those interactions have been both warm and competent. So it came as a shock when a friend in the labor movement shared with me a letter from Mark Bessire – the museum’s director –to its staff, inveighing against the formation of a union. In his letter, Mr. Bessire repeats the tired trope that a union would threaten the workplace culture of the PMA. The logical extension of this assertion is that the PMA culture requires a disparity in power between management and labor. But one need look no further than the Westbrook apparel company, American Roots, to see how management that cooperates with a union is better equipped to adjust to economic uncertainty than one that fights organized labor.

I have worked in both organized and unorganized shops, and I know that organization isn’t a panacea. Working with the Teamsters union, I saw how their management ran roughshod over the rank and file, replicating within the union the same imbalance that the union is supposed to correct in its interactions with corporate management. But the current state of the labor movement is the most progressive I’ve yet seen. The people trying to form a union at the PMA are driven by a commitment to fairness and institutional integrity that is nothing like the Teamsters of the last century. They love their museum, and want to make it stronger.

Without a union, individual workers cannot counter the power of management and must accept its dictates. Institutions afflicted with this imbalance are more fertile ground for the growth of conflict than those where the balance is better. Rather than threatening the PMA’s culture, as Mr. Bessire suggests, a union can help preserve its warmth and camaraderie. When negotiating pay and working conditions, the union may indeed compete with management, but the outcome will be a fairer, kinder workplace that is the interests of all concerned.


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