Supermajority of TAM workers organize for union representation

By Emma Loenicker

Since May 2022, a council of Tacoma Art Museum employees has been making efforts to unionize. They are organizing for livable wages and benefits, no further staff reduction, accessible grievance procedures to create accountability, transparency from leadership, standardized hiring and training procedures and influence in decision-making processes to improve their work conditions. This effort would make the TAM Washington’s first major art institution with unionized workers.

On Oct. 17, TAM’s board of trustees received the workers’ letter requesting union representation. In the letter that TAM Workers United sent to the board and leadership, they expressed that their “efforts have been undermined by un-livable wages, unsafe working conditions, no opportunity to provide input on policy, few avenues for review and advancement, a lack of accountability and transparency, as well as fear of retaliation when we raise concerns.”

That same day, members of the council convened outside of the TAM to publicly announce the formation of their union with the Washington Federation of State Employees, the local council under the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. One of the committee-elected leaders, Eden Redmond, who is also the Institutional Giving Manager at the museum, called TAM workers “undervalued, underpaid and unheard” during her speech on the 17th. By Oct. 17, nearly 90% of TAM’s eligible employees signed union authorization cards, thereby indicating their preference to be represented by a union. Since a supermajority of the workers signed the cards, TAM can react one of two ways: They can either voluntarily recognize the union and begin bargaining, or they can decline to recognize the union, at which point the workers can file an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board. If the majority of the workers vote to unionize during that election, the NLRB will certify the union, and TAM will be bound by law to recognize it.

Seeing as the TAM executive director position is not currently filled, TAM’s senior management and board of trustees will jointly decide how to proceed in handling the unionization effort, according to board president Jeff Williams.

While no formal decision has yet been made, Williams explained that the board and senior management held an allstaff listening session on Oct. 27, and convened a task force on Nov. 2, which includes an HR representative, as well as three board members. According to Williams, the unionization committee has “recognized that at this point, we are not in a position to determine whether or not to recognize them as a union yet.”

The listening session was the first step in understanding the staff’s concerns, according to Williams. “The task force’s job is to meet with the union organizer. They are a conduit for the unionization members, as well as for the board to really inform us on what the prudent steps would be to take moving through the process.”

There is currently no fixed timeline for this effort, but Williams says that ongoing meetings are taking place with the common goal of coming to a “mutual understanding” of how to proceed.

The movement to unionize TAM is in line with unionization patterns at various social and cultural institutions throughout the country. The pandemic has had a massive impact on the workforce — impacts that are causing union membership to undergo a resurgence after years of decline.

The NLRB reported a 57% increase in petitions filed for union representation between October 2021 and March 2022. In that same time period, the NLRB reported a 14% increase in charges of unfair labor practices.

On behalf of the TAM board of trustees, Williams stated, “we want them to be happy in their positions. They do a lot of great work on behalf of the museum so we obviously want to support them in a work environment that they are happy to come to.”