The Portland Museum of Art won a victory Friday in its dispute with union organizers over the eligibility of gallery ambassadors to join a local bargaining unit.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled those employees perform security functions and should be treated as security guards, which means they are not eligible for membership in the proposed bargaining unit seeking to represent museum employees.

With the dispute resolved, the next step will be counting eligible votes cast by employees in December over the fate of the union.

Friday’s 3-0 decision reverses a regional labor board’s ruling in November that gallery ambassadors were eligible to join the United Auto Workers Local 2110 of the Technical, Office and Professional Union.

The museum appealed that decision, resulting in Friday’s reversal, but also infuriating some pro-union employees and former employees who began a public campaign to pressure the museum to drop its appeal.

In a statement Friday night, the museum said, “According to this ruling, Gallery Ambassadors are not eligible to be within the proposed bargaining unit, given their core role in the safety and security of our visitors, staff, and artworks. Now that this legal issue has been decided by the NLRB, we anticipate that we will soon learn the results of the election held last December. Once the ballots are counted, we will honor the decision of the majority of the staff members who are eligible to be represented by Local 2110. No matter the results, we are committed to working with our staff in good faith and are excited about moving the museum into the future, together.”

Michaela Flint, a former museum employee, said in an email, “I just heard the news myself. It’s a disappointing result but I am happy to say that this won’t stop our organizing efforts.”

The union vote and the museum’s decision to appeal the eligibility of gallery ambassadors created tension among workers trying to unionize, those who oppose the effort and museum management. Those hard feelings have spilled into the public view in recent weeks, with Flint and other former and current employees handing out pro-union leaflets in front of the museum and anti-union staff members sending an unsigned letter to the media complaining the union effort “has pitted our staff against each other.”

During an artists-only opening for the current exhibition “Untitled, 2020: Art from Maine In A ______ Time” in late March, sculptor Charles Schreiber confronted museum Director Mark Bessire in front of other artists in a gallery, accusing museum management of being anti-union. The discussion lasted several minutes and became loud and heated, drawing the attention of other artists who attended the reception.

Relations between the museum and the union became further frayed this winter when the museum eliminated between 15 and 18 part-time gallery ambassador positions after the votes were cast, replaced them with five full-time positions with benefits, and opened applications to employees who had lost their jobs. The union described the move as an unfair labor practice by eliminating positions that would have been part of the bargaining unit, and accused the museum of acting with unnecessary aggression and union-busting tactics.

Flint was among those who lost her job. She was invited to apply for a full-time position and did so, but did not receive an offer. She was disappointed she did not get an offer for a full-time job and that the museum appealed the regional labor board’s November decision. “I want to be vocal. I want people to be upset with what is going on,” she said.

A 26-year-old illustrator, Flint began working at the museum in December 2018, and had three job titles during her time there, all involving security or visitor experiences. She was classified as a gallery ambassador when she lost her job, and was earning a little more than $14 an hour.

“I wanted to find a job that involved art, and the museum was the ideal workplace – a couple of blocks from my apartment and I got to work with artists,” she said. “I wanted to be in a creative environment that would inspire me and possibly lead to other creative opportunities in this career. And it has. I met really interesting people.”

Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, accused museum management of taking advantage of the holdup in the ballot count – caused by its appeal – to eliminate positions that would have been part of the bargaining unit. She said the museum risked alienating large chunks of its audience by prolonging the fight.

“They have choices. They don’t need to fight with the union,” Rosenstein said. “They don’t have to try to stop people from voting or stop people from making their decisions known. There are choices, and they are picking the wrong side, particularly for a small institution that is also an art museum. Them fighting their employees this way is toxifying.”

Bessire says the museum adjusted staffing levels to reflect both current needs and changing attitudes toward the role of traditional museum security guards. He said the part-time job losses were not layoffs, but part of a restructuring plan that resulted in “a reduction of force.”

“Union organizers have used the complicated nature of this process to paint the museum as not a good place and being a union buster and that we are blocking votes,” Bessire said prior to Friday’s decision. “We have never blocked anybody’s votes. The election was completed in December. Everybody voted in December. We can’t do anything to influence anybody at this point. The votes are in.”

The pro-union workers say their effort is part of a broader local and national movement for economic equity and social justice and is similar to unionization movements at Maine Medical Center and Planned Parenthood in Maine and at Amazon and other large national companies. Workers at many museums across the country are considering joining unions in an effort to build diversity, equity and inclusion measures into their contracts.

“This isn’t an isolated push for a union at the museum,” said Whitney Stanley, associate registrar and collection data manager at the PMA, who supports the union. “It is tied to a larger movement happening around Portland and around the country. For me, this is an opportunity to level the playing field. This is the year we have seen billionaires turn into centibillionaires. There is a lot of difference between working at the museum and working at Amazon, but nothing exists in a vacuum.”

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