Portland Museum of Art employees accuse management of taking an anti-union stance. Museum management responded by saying it was not anti-union, but it didn’t believe a union was right for the museum. Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — Portland Museum of Art employees will vote next month vote on whether to form a union.

Citing low pay and poor job security, 70 workers, including curators, registrars, education staff and other employees, filed a petition in September to form a union with the Technical, Office and Professional Union Local 2110 UAW. The employee group petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election, but museum management “has tried to prevent the workers from exercising this right,” according to Maine AFL-CIO, a state federation representing more than 160 local labor unions.

The museum reorganized its department of museum experience and safety in September, creating gallery ambassador and security associate employee classifications. The ambassador positions are generally responsible for ensuring a positive experience for museum visitors by providing education and interpretation of exhibits. The security associates are responsible for the safety of visitors and employees, as well as the security of the building and the museum’s collection. Museum management, however, classified both jobs as “security” and said those positions shouldn’t be in the same union as other employees.

The National Labor Relations Board this month found the museum’s 23 gallery ambassadors have the right to form a union and can vote to do so through a mail-in election next month. The board said security associates cannot join that same union, but could form one of their own.

Whitney Stanley, an associate registrar at the museum, said “it’s disturbing to see the museum fight our right to unionize so hard when they say equity, inclusiveness and accessibility are top priorities.”

“We work at the museum because we love it and want to make it a better place for our current and future colleagues,” said Meghan Quigley Graham, a learning and teaching specialist. “Too often we are not part of crucial decision-making processes that impact our work and personal lives. We go through the accepted channels to voice the need for change and those voices go unheard. Having a union will give us the right to bring our collective concerns as employees to the bargaining table.”

Suzanne Murphy, a gallery ambassador, said a union is needed “to protect ourselves and to make sure that our needs and contribution as a museum staff are recognized.”

The employees’ push for a union has the support of 40 legislators from Cumberland and York counties, including eight representing Portland, who have signed a letter urging Portland Museum of Art to respect the right of its employees to organize.

“These employees have a great love for their work and the museum. By forming a union, they believe they can better use their collective voice to help improve their working conditions, communication between workers and management and the valuable service this important institution provides to the community,” the legislators wrote in a letter to Portland Museum of art Executive Director Mark Bessire, Board of Trustees President Cyrus Hagge and other museum trustees. “We urge you to recognize that employees have the legal right to organize without retaliation or intimidation. The decision to organize is a fundamental right and should be up to the workers to make that decision free from interference.”

Graeme Kennedy, the museum’s director of strategic communications and public relations, told The Forecaster that the “Portland Museum of Art cares deeply for its staff and community and in no way seeks to delay or prevent a vote on unionization.”

Instead, he said, the museum “is focused on ensuring all staff who are eligible to vote do so and ensuring that all staff are well informed about the pros and cons of unionization.”

Kennedy said management feels a union at the museum would “have a negative effect on the existing level of communication and cooperation between staff and management.”

The museum, he said, “welcomes and encourages open communication amongst staff members at every level and has actively incorporated staff input in numerous ways over the last several years from improving and creating new policies for base pay, vacation time, paid parental leave, paid sick leave and annual raises, to hosting retreats, listening sessions and workshops with staff that have guided our goals around Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) as well as shaped our next five-year Strategic Plan.”

Ballots will be mailed out Nov. 30 and must be returned by Dec. 21. The votes will be virtually tallied Dec. 22.

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