Tacoma Art Museum Workers United with Stephen Rue & Carrie Morton

hosted by
marguerite martin


A hundred or so people from Tacoma Art Museum Workers United gather in Tolefson Plaza in Downtown Tacoma to celebrate forming their union.

About This Episode

Tacoma is a union town. Stephen Rue and Carrie Morton from Tacoma Art Museum Workers United share about forming a union at the Tacoma Art Museum. They share about the conditions at the museum that led them to decide to form a union, their long journey to being recognized, and what's involved as they go to the bargaining table to negotiate their first contract. If you've ever thought about forming a union in Tacoma this podcast is for you.

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Episode Transcript

This is Channel 253. Move to Tacoma! On this episode of Move to Tacoma. One of the things that, because there’s like this idea of like being paid and prestige for working in a, and also like working in an area that like, You want to work with and like, Steve, I know you want to work with art, like, like, and most of the people that work there are artists in some way, because of that, and like working in an area that you want, that you feel kind of fulfilled in, in a lot of ways, hopefully, maybe, um, there’s, uh, this idea that people don’t have to pay you as much.

Channel two five three is member supported. I’m producer Doug Mackey And I hope you will show your support by going to channel two five three dot com slash membership and join. Thank you We’re back I’m Marguerite and I want you to subscribe To move to Tacoma. Move to Tacoma. Move to Tacoma. Move to Tacoma.

You like it? Move to Tacoma. Move to Tacoma. Move to tacoma com. Hi, I’m Marguerite with Move to Tacoma, and I’m here today with Stephen Rue and Carrie Morton from Tacoma Art Museum, workers United. Welcome. Hi. Hello. Hello. Nice to be here. I’m so glad you’re here. So, I want to start by asking, uh, I don’t know who wants to go first, but when did you each move to Tacoma and why?

Yeah, so I was born in Tacoma and I was born and raised in University Place. So yeah, it’s just a fun area to live in. And I, you know, I grew, was lucky to grow up around Curtis and stuff like that. So, yeah. So you had your whole childhood through to adulthood. Same house and university place? Yeah, yeah, I was really lucky.

I mean, I moved away for a while, but I ended up coming back, so. How long were you gone? About a decade and a half. Okay, so you tried out other places legitimately. Oh, I absolutely did. Yeah, but I lived in Tacoma when I did that. Oh, okay. You’re like, I tried across the street. Yeah. Excellent. And Steven? Well, I grew up in Auburn, actually.

Oh, okay. Um, and then ended up. Going to PLU, so that’s as close as I’ve gotten to, to Tacoma. Went off into the world for a long time. Um, ended up moving back to Des Moines, and then, now I’m actually in Puyallup. Okay, Greater Tacoma area. Greater Tacoma area. Are you a downtown Puyallup person or a South Hill Puyallup person?

Kind of a South Hill person, off 84th and Canyon. Okay, yes. I mean, now you’re like bordering Fredrickson at that point. Yeah, I know. You’re in the T zone over there. I know. I like to be in the no man’s land. So what do you like living in the Canyon Road area? Uh, it’s pretty convenient. I actually used to, um, commute all the way up to Bellevue, to the Bellevue Arts Museum, so coming back and, uh, switching to Tacoma Art Museum, kind of cut my commute by, uh, hour and a half, each way, seems, so.

Eighty fourth and Canyon to downtown Tacoma at the Tacoma Art Museum. How long, how long of a drive is that like? Well, no, No traffic, 15 minutes, maybe 20 in the morning. Wow. Getting to the museum. Not too bad. Uh, yeah, it works for me. That’s awesome. Yeah. Carrie, where do you live now? Are you still in UP?

Yeah, I still live in UP. No way! I’ve never, yeah, I mean, I moved for a while, and then I ended up coming back. My parents got, um, a little bit older, and then the pandemic happened, and it just kind of turned out that my parents needed someone to live with them, and ended up, I’m an only child, so that’s me. I get to live with them, so yeah.

So what do you like best about living in UP? I, like, I’m right down the road from Chambers Bay, so I love that. the most. I also love living fairly close to an apple orchard in general. So that, that’s really cool. Um, you can say, well, the U S open happened on my street a while ago, you know, so things like that.

So I’ve always wondered about people who live in UP, like, what do you do in the apple orchard? Like I’ve seen it, but I’ve never like, do you walk in it? Do you, do you pick the apples? What happens in there? Yeah, so people adopt, well, okay, first off, I have to say, I don’t really know, but, but here’s my kind of answer.

Um, I, people like have their own trees and like, they pick their apples and stuff like that. And then there’s events there and there’s like a little set. There’s events there in the summer, and there’s usually like a cider festival or something like in, uh, towards Halloween and stuff like that. So yeah, that’s the Apple Ward.

It’s just really cool. That is very cool. Yeah, unique. Yeah. Well, I am very excited to talk to you both today. I was saying before we started, like, I really don’t know anything about unions, so I’m gonna hopefully it’s okay. I’m going to ask lots of dumb questions about how this all came about and like how this works in case anybody listening wants to do this at their work.

Like I want to know how, how this all happens. So you are both at the Tacoma Art Museum, um, and you were involved in forming the union for the workers at the museum. Is that right? Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. Yes. And what are each of your roles at the museum? Like, what are your, what are your jobs? Yeah, I am the store manager at, so I run the gift shop, pretty much sort of single handedly, but I also have like other workers that come in and cover it for me for a while.

Like, Right now. Um, so that’s what I do. I started off in the visitor services. I come from like a really long customer service background and retail background. So I, uh, started in visitor services and then they were like, we need someone to run the store and we would love someone that had like, what’s an assistant manager and like that for a while, so I was like, Oh, that’s exactly me.

Okay. So that’s how I got started. That’s kind of how I started. Awesome. It’s really fun. I love, I love working, I get to like, pick art from local artists and put it in the store and stuff like that. It’s really cool. That is awesome. Yeah, and I am, my official title is Lead Preparator. Oh. And yeah, do you want to tell me what a preparator is?

I mean, in my mind, like, the truck pulls up and you take the painting out of its blanket and you dust it off and you hang it on the wall. My goodness. That’s actually really good. That is great. Yeah, I’m sure they don’t come wrapped in That’s kind of well, they yes Yeah, that’s actually pretty accurate I am I work on the curatorial department No one usually ever knows what that means, but I am the guy that essentially.

Uh, we’ve got a team, but, uh, you know, I help out with exhibition design and, uh, exhibition planning, and I am the guy that actually builds stuff and handles the art, puts the art on the wall or From the ceiling or whatever it is. Because it’s not paintings anymore, right? Like, there’s all kinds of 3D. I mean, like, do they come with, does the art come with instructions?

I imagine the artists have some. Hardly ever. What? Sometimes. They’re like, just figure it out. This is what it’s supposed to look like. Well, that’s kind of the fun thing about my job. Is, is I, well, one, every exhibition is different. And so I’m always, it’s never, sometimes it is just paintings on a wall. And that’s, that’s fun too.

But, I mean. Sometimes it’s crazy, like you have to rent cranes or, or, uh, you know, build huge walls or, um, stuff like that. It’s, it’s just always different. Do you find yourself calling, like, the Cleveland, Ohio Museum that it was just at and being like, well, how did you hang this up? Oh, well, you guys all talk to each other.

You have a Facebook group. Yeah, no, there’s, there’s, you know, we’ve got people all around that we can call up. Oh, amazing. You know, there’s a network of people. People that do what I do, and we actually talk every now and then. So, I mean, Kerry, I’m making some assumptions about how you end up in customer service roles.

I had a customer service path myself one time, and like, become the shop manager of a museum. But your job, I don’t even know. Do you have to have a degree for that? Do you come from a construction background? Like, how do you qualify for that? What are they looking for when they find that person? Exactly.

There are, you know, some programs out there, um, but, for like art handling and whatnot. But no, you don’t necessarily have to have a degree. I actually, um, came from an artist background. I got my BFA at PLU and then I ended up getting an MFA and I was a painter for a long time and a teacher, um, taught at Whitworth and then came back and did some adjunct stuff, um, in the Seattle area.

Um, and, um, And, all the while doing that, I also did some construction, did, um, uh, I flipped some houses back, um, when I was living in Spokane. Um, did about four or five houses, and then started doing renovations, kitchens, and bathrooms, I mean, everything. So you’ve seen it all. Um, yeah. So, yeah, but then all the while I was painting and teaching art, um, and showing in galleries, some museums and stuff like that.

And then also, I was, there’s things, there’s independent art handlers out there, um, and art handling companies that actually go and install art for corporations or private, um, houses or, um, So I did that for a while, too. So, um, when I finally went back into the museum world, um, all those things kind of came together.

My art background, my construction background, I built furniture. So, um, Yeah, it’s kind of like I’m get to do everything that I’ve done and yeah, you don’t need a degree it’s a lot of a lot of people in my job are artists or You know, they’ve or like Ben the guy that I work with closely. He’s a musician So it’s it kind of draws the creative type in Awesome.

Yeah. Ah. And you were already doing that same role at Bellevue and then you got the job at TAM obviously to be in your own community and have a better commute and all that good stuff I imagine. Oh yeah. Yeah. And we’ve got a great team down there too. So how did all this come about? Like do you all just like you’re in a cafeteria and you’re like, you know what we should do?

Or is there like incident? Like how do you tell the story of how the idea to unionize came about? Yeah, so, we, it kind of started in the frontline workers, um, talking about, there’s always been issues with, and this is across the board at every museum that I’ve ever talked to or been to, that there’s always issues with frontline workers being kind of disrespected, not having the great greatest working conditions, expected to do outsized amounts of work with limited resources.

And so that’s a common thread. And there were definitely some meetings in which some of my colleagues were like, one of my colleagues said, like, Oh, we need a union. Let’s just do that. And I was like, that’s a thing we can do. Right. I didn’t know that because I come from a very like corporate retail background and I was like, we can just do that.

Apparently you can. Um, so, um, they had some, Some friends in, in some connections, uh, ask me. And, um, so they, um, contacted those and then we kind of just started meeting and like talking about like what’s going on at the museum and stuff like that. At first it started with just the kind of visitor services kind of department.

And that’s what you mean by frontline. That was going to be my question. So that’s like the person that takes your ticket, the person that Yeah, that’s everywhere. So frontline for our museum, like I consider myself a frontline worker because I work with the people, like with the people that come in the museum and the cafe is also connected with that.

And then our visitor services department, visitor services does like So much stuff all over the museum. They clean, they are the people that operate the desk. They watch all the galleries. If you’re asking a question, they’re going to answer that. So they’re kind of all over, literally all over the museum and, um, and they, they work in the store when I’m not there.

So, uh, Um, that’s what I mean by front line workers, but for starting the union, it really started in the visitor services department, um, back when I was there. And um, then as we were discussing, like, what would a union look like? It became very clear that there was. It’s probably a lot of issues that expanded beyond visitor services.

And so we could create a union just for visitor services, but it would make more sense to make a union that involved everyone in the museum. And so that’s kind of when we started having conversations about like, well, I know I heard this person say this, and I know I heard this person say this. So I think that they would be kind of like, okay, to talk to you and just kind of starting talking.

Yeah. conversations with people outside of kind of the group that we’d kind of already with like that everyone had been like, yeah, we are definitely want to form a union. And that’s kind of where it spread. And I think sometimes, like, I think a lot of people think that like, the Uh, we went public in October 2022 and that, you know, so people are like, Oh, you’ve been doing this for like a month now and you’re like, no, we’ve been doing this for, because there’s like a whole six months of having those conversations and it being kind of secret work.

Right. You do. Um, so. Yeah, and so as we started kind of having those conversations, it became pretty clear that everyone had similar issues. There was really like, a lack of transparency museum wide, um, that was concerning. Um, and we knew that there were conversations that happened about our particular jobs and about that, you know, we are stakeholders of that.

We never really. were involved in, and that we had little to no say about. It just became, you’re doing this, and this is how we’re going to handle this. And then we’re like, well, that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense. It’s just like, just do it. Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it. Yeah. And, and actually, I, um, Came into it maybe like five, six months down the line, um, with all these murmurings.

Forgot about that. Yeah, it was, it was, yeah, because it did grow up kind of, uh, organically. And so, you know, after the frontline workers started trickling down into the administration, and, um, pretty soon, all the different departments were talking to each other. Um, yeah. Interestingly enough, I mean, some of the, um, dysfunctional things, um, one of them, too, was the siloing amongst different departments, and so we’re finally starting to talk to each other, and realizing, holy cow, a lot of these problems that the frontline workers are having, you know, we are also having, this is very dysfunctional, and the culture at TAM was really, um, kind of toxic.

Um, and, uh, such, and working conditions, retaliatory, retaliatory, um, actions by the administration, lack of transparency, um, like Kerry said. Um, so all these things, All of a sudden, we all realized, you know, something’s got to be done here, um, to change the culture. Yeah, how many people are we talking? Like, you, you say it starts on the, with the frontline folks, and it kind of starts, you’re talking, it starts to spread, like, so and so might be into this, so and so’s cool, like, let’s talk to them about it, and it gets to admin, and you consider yourself part of the administrative, like, staff.

How is this defined, like, in different groups? That, that’s where it gets kind of complicated because our museum, like physically, there’s the floor, the main floor that has all the galleries and everything. That’s the first, uh, um, that’s like the, all the galleries and stuff like that. There’s that floor.

And then you go in an elevator and the floor beneath that is the administration floor. And that’s all of the office workers, the development workers, the education workers. And they’re very separated. Yeah, and so, like, there’s literally a floor between us. So, it also becomes like, I had never met Steve, really, until the union.

And I didn’t know, really, very many of my colleagues at all until I was involved in the union. Like, I knew my department, and that was it. There’s not, like, a company Christmas party? Well, there are, but not, uh, it doesn’t really draw everyone together. Yeah, I’ve been working there, what, like four and a half years.

Yeah, well, yeah, it’s, it’s hard to get everyone, especially visitor services people that, you know, oftentimes their, uh, hours were, were capped and, and whatnot. And so it was hard to actually get everyone to kind of join together and, and, I mean, it was set, almost set up that way in order to keep us kind of separated.

I mean, whether that be conscious or not, um, yeah, yeah. And I think like, that’s a great point with the holiday party. Like I, yeah. When I worked visitor services, I didn’t go to the holiday party because I work two jobs and then I’m also taking care of parents. Like I, you know, it just became like one of those things was like, I have a night free Yay.

Yeah. I mean a sleep, a . I’ve been working there like four and a half years or so. The first three, at least, if not more than that, I knew maybe 25% of the people there. Wow. Um, now I know every single person’s name and I can walk past and we can sit and chat and whatnot. I mean, everybody, and that was so different.

Now there’s, there’s like 40 some odd, um. people on payroll, I think, at the museum. Um, or maybe even less than that. And, um, in the union, now that we won our union, um, it’s a cross departmental union, which is, is different than a lot of unions in the cultural, um, workers kind of sector, especially. Um, But we have like 25, 26 members, so we, our Tacoma Art Museum, Workers United, makes up the majority of the workers at the museum.

Now. And so we, we all know each other, and the culture’s gotten so much better, and it’s 100 percent because of the union. Okay, so we got to roll it back because I’ve got a hundred questions. So, okay, so you have these groups that are physically separated. You do very different jobs. You’re physically separated.

It’s hard to come together even naturally through, like, kind of command performances at work. And then you’re physically separated. You’re starting to talk about forming this union. How do you come together to do the planning? How do you agree? Okay, we’re going to contact because I don’t you have to be like, is it like you’re under a type of union or like, how do you choose that?

Like, how did it all unfold? What are the steps forward? And then how do you get agreement on how to proceed before you were even, I mean, before we even talk about like involving management and how I’m sure they reacted, we can get there. But like, how do you get to the point before you reach out to management and let them know what’s going on?

Yeah. So I know that we had, um, We work with WFSE and that sounds, that stands for the Washington Federation of State Employees, State Employees. Thank you. And we just throw around these acronyms like, Oh yeah, WFSE. Everybody knows what that means, I guess, but we don’t. Um, and so, Uh, we had some kind of connections with WOOFC, so that’s kind of how we started.

They also, so they represent people in the public sector, but they’ve recently like started moving into, um, uh, moving into doing more, um, like private sector stuff. And a museum would be considered private because it’s a non profit? Yeah, yeah. My understanding. I also have like, there’s one of those things about unions is like, I feel like sometimes it’s like you have to have like a doctorate to kind of understand the ins and outs of it.

And it’s like, gets, the more you dig, the like more questions you have. I feel like always. So, um, We, uh, so we had a contact, or had some contact with folks in WUFC, they happened to have an organizer that like, and that had worked in, um, museums before, and, um, So they were really interested. And also there’s right now after the pandemic, um, there are just a ton of museums that are organizing and creating unions, um, kind of started in York and is just spreading across the country.

Like, um, uh, the Philadelphia. Um, they’re doing a bunch of stuff there with organizing, um, Sam has, uh, the VSO is organizing. So it’s just a kind of a whole industry level, um, process that’s going on right now of unionizing. And one of the large reasons for that is, Is, um, that as cultural workers, a lot of times, like, we are paid in prestige.

Like, I remember when I got a job at the art museum, my, like, family was like, Yay. Oh, that’s so cool. You’re working at the art museum. Oh, wow. And I was like, yeah, get a load of my W2. Yeah, I have a job. Thank you. Um, and so. Uh, one of the things that, because there’s like this idea of like being paid and prestige for working in a, and also like working in an area that like you want to work with, and like Steve, I know you want to work with art, like, like, and most of the people that work there are artists in some way, because of that, and like working with in an area that you want, that you feel kind of fulfilled in, in a lot of ways, hopefully, maybe.

Um, there’s, uh, this idea that people don’t have to pay you as much. Is it like the Devil Wears Prada where it’s like a thousand girls would kill for this job? Yeah, kind of. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And so that’s one of the other things that That, um, when we started talking, like, that’s what really has like sparked this whole movement across the nation is the fact that when we came back from COVID, cultural workers were just like the law, especially people in the front lines, but everyone in museums were like the least priority.

There’s one thing about COVID. We all figured out where we stood. Yeah. Yeah. And it was like, You know, just like the expectations. Well, you didn’t have a job for a year. So like, here we go. Like, now you have a job. Feel lucky. And people, you know, and especially like with safety and stuff like that, people really started to like start asking a lot of questions about that.

And so that’s kind of how cultural workers started unionizing. we, um, you know, I, I, Honestly, I wasn’t really in on, like, what union we picked to begin with. Like, I wasn’t Even I think it’s super involved in that. So I don’t even know that much about it. But like, other than I know that, you know, WOOFC and the Washington Federation of State Employees is working on like, organizing more cultural workers.

So somebody at the museum knew somebody at WOOFC, contacted them. Woofsy was like, hey, we’ve got an organizer to, like, they assign you an organizer, and this person has some museum experience. Yeah. And then, what does the organizer do? Nah, they are the best. Because, um, they have that knowledge of all the background stuff and the legal stuff that you have to do in order to set this up and get this going.

And so they helped coach us, um, On all those details. Yeah. I mean, we, very, one other great thing about them is that this is a very much a, um, museum workers led movement. Yeah. And WFC recognizes that. They are there to help facilitate, and they do an amazing job. Awesome job on that and we it’s so helpful and they have the resources to do it and they educate us Yeah, they just hate us.

Yeah, otherwise, we’d be like, how do we start a union still? You know what that isn’t how it happens everywhere, right? You can form a union and not have that Representation like the the workers at Sam. Yeah, and oh man, I the Seattle Art Museum. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We’re looking to have representation Yeah, yeah Yeah, we are, because they are doing it by themselves, which means they have to, like, do GoFundMe for the, you know, lawyers get involved and all this stuff.

Um, I just have the utmost respect for them because, um, it is so nice to have the, the knowledge and resources of union, uh, representation, uh, through IFC. Yeah. Um, so thank you, thank you for them and, yeah. Well, we’re going to take a break. And when we come back, I’m going to ask a thousand more questions about organizing a union.

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And again, if you are a member. Thank you. Move to Tacoma! All right, we’re back. When last we spoke, uh, you had been to WFC, you’d gotten your organizer, and you’re going through the process of getting your questions answered, and it sounds like they also come with some funding and support for that. There, there’s organizations that are prepared to help workers organize when they like raise their hands and say they want it.

Yes. Right? Already, I’m, I’m excited. One of, yeah, one of the things that happens when you become a union is you start paying dues. And one of the things that those dues go to is also organizing other, um, organizations. So until you have, like, your, um, until you actually, like, have a contract and do that, you don’t really pay dues until, till then.

So. That’s where, like, coming in and having an organization that organizes people is really helpful. And what does the organizing look like? Like, from my perspective, I’m just imagining, okay, I work at, I work at the art museum, and my coworkers want to unionize, and my questions are going to be something like, okay, are we going to get in trouble?

Like, you know, like, is my boss gonna fire me if they find out I’m doing this? Like that’s where my head goes. Absolutely. I’m 43. I don’t mean to sound like a boomer or something, but like, what about my boss? I had so many conversations about that of like, well, you know, infertility. Me as like a VS person at that point and like working multiple jobs I was like, well, I’ll just work another job if I get fired, you know, so that’s very brave.

Yeah. Yeah Because like as VS like VS makes the least amount of money in the whole museum and it’s At the time, I think it was, it was not, you know, not paying the bills by itself, by not a living wage, not a living wage in any any way. So for me, it like I was working a bunch of jobs and stuff like that.

So it meant that like, the stakes for our department were a little like, I don’t want to say they were lower because they were pretty high. But at the same time, it’s like, okay, well, I’ll just let you know. Get another job that also pays poorly. Well, but in that respect, too, it was almost more of a risk because there’s, there was really a revolving door of people coming in and out, especially of the visitor services, frontline staff, but even amongst the admin staff, too.

I mean, that was part of this toxic culture. No one really stayed around that long because, you know, it wasn’t that fun to work there. Um, So, when you formed a union, yeah, there is that, um, worry that you’re going to get retaliated against because that culture was set up already. And you know, like, technically it’s illegal, but there’s all kinds of stuff that’s illegal that is not enforced.

So, like, what are the practicalities here? We like you have to discuss too is that the NLRB is the National Labor Relations Board and they’re the ones that oversee like labor complaints and all that. So if um, If I were any, starting to organize a union and my boss found out and I just got fired right off the bat, then the union would see or myself would file a complaint with an LRB.

But because of what’s going on, there’s so much unionizing at Amazon and at Starbucks and all these like major corporations. Um, that the NLRB is, like, really backed up, so it’s one of those things of, like, if there is a labor violation, like, yeah, you will have your day, and, like, it will, the NLRB will hear you, and there’ll probably be an investigation, but that’s, like, so far down the line that, like, for, for me, it’s, like, well, I already have a new job, and, you know, have moved on, because, you know, it’s, you’re not just gonna wait.

Years for her. Well, honestly, that sounds scary then. So how do you get through that stage? I mean, I’m just imagining someone going like who’s listening going like, wow, the working conditions where I am are also crap Maybe they’re in a nonprofit. Mm hmm. I didn’t even know a nonprofit workers could organize.

Yeah, I’m hearing this I’m definitely scared of my boss retaliating like how did you get through that stage of concern? Like, was it the advice of your organizer? Like, how did you, like, stay together? How did you not have people, like, breaking off and being like, Never mind. How do you do that? Well, the way we, uh, got over that risk was, was by staying together.

I mean, we are stronger as a union, as a collective, and so the reason that we had more, maybe, power? Or, um, I don’t know. Because we came together as a collective. And so, you know, if one person goes and complains here and there, Yeah, it’s a lot easier to just, you know, move them along. Get them fired or something like that.

If we come together as three fourths of the workforce of the museum, That’s a lot, um, a lot more powerful. It gives us a voice. A voice that we didn’t have before, because we’re doing it collectively. And so that’s, you know, the purpose of union. And that’s the great thing is with, um, that’s a law in the United States.

We are allowed to unionize. And so with that protection coming together, um, you know, makes it harder for, Yeah, and also one of the most powerful things that we have is our labor. And so if you know, you hear about strikes all the time, like one of the, like, but there’s a whole bunch of ways that you can use your labor as.

method to, um, to unionize. And so, and to, like, improve conditions. So, um, And not just striking. Yeah, not just striking at all. Um, so, but, you know, we’re all individually in charge of our own labor. Like, we could just not work. And, but our labor is what’s moving the museum forward. It’s keeping it open every day.

Yep. And so that’s a really pivotal and really important thing that I think a lot of people kind of overlook when they’re, like, thinking about a union is that, like, you do have power, like, you do have your labor, and there’s a lot of ways in which you can leverage that through working together to, um, because if one person Does something it’s really not that impactful, but if a lot of people do the same thing at the same time, it’s very impactful, and that can look at.

We had rallies outside of the museum during, um, during board meetings. We had. I feel like that’s where my awareness first came, like seeing maybe pictures on your social account or something of this. Yeah, which I would add to that. Not only our, um, Our labor as leverage, but the community, um, because getting the community involved on your side, on our side, puts more pressure on the administration as well.

Um, and that’s huge. That is huge. And not only, you know, just the general community, but, um, you know, once you get into the pipeline of, um, union organization and whatnot,

The kind of motto is, Tacoma is a union town. Mmm. I’ve never heard that before. Oh, yeah, that’s big. Okay. And, yeah, because Tacoma is, you know, made up of a lot of, you know, Right, I think it’s Longshoremen. Yes, exactly. And they were all coming out for us. Mmm. And so there’s this huge community amongst unions, but amongst the, the, Um, The entire population of our community in Tacoma that would show up to these rallies, that would write letters to board members, um, that would, um, yeah.

Yeah. So you, did you even know in the beginning that when you did this you were going to be tapping into this massive, like local network of support that all these people would come out for you. Absolutely not. If that’s how it was sold to me of like, you’re going to have to have a lot of like, I’m kind of shy.

Yeah. And, uh, you’re going to have to have a lot of conversations with people you don’t know. Like I would have been like, okay, peace out. But, um, you know, it’s the support from those people that really motivate you forward. that motivate you, but also like propel the movement forward in a lot of ways. So that’s really, and that’s like straight up once again goes back to like being connected to your labor of like being a really important thing that you do have power.

And then also collective action is really powerful. Always. And like we said, it doesn’t have to be striking. I mean, people think union and they think, you know, picketers outside. Um, like boycotting the museum. We did nothing of that. We have always encouraged people to come to the museum. We’ve never actually walked off the job.

Um, and, uh, That is just one level that you can get down. So we, we fought for an entire year because they originally rejected, um, what they recognize the, um, okay. So this is starting to get more complicated because we started organizing like in the spring or something of, or late winter, 2022. And during that whole time, we were meeting as a group.

You know, several, several times having meetings. How do you find a place to meet for that? Well, people’s houses. Oh, people’s houses. People’s houses. Pizza place. Bars. Okay. Got it. Okay. You just want to make sure your boss doesn’t go there. Right. You got it. Clear, clear instruction there. Exactly. Find a secret meeting place.

Yeah. So, exactly. Uh. Uh. And so we had planned to finally come out publicly, and that’s when we would tell the administration, Okay, we’re unionized, we’re doing this. Um, but right before then, uh, our old, um, Executive director, David Setford, um, he, uh, left the museum, uh, before we even came out publicly. And so we’re in this weird, uh, place of purgatory with no executive director to kind of pinpoint our message to the public.

Yeah, it almost seems like that would be great. Like, okay, well, you have an interim director. Like, I guess you’re the one that’s going to have to deal with it. Exactly. Didn’t have at that time. No, not at that time. And then it was so new. Okay. And then also we like a lot of our plans, like one of the biggest things.

As a union to do is to, like, deliver the letter on the day that you’re going public to, like, the person in charge, which in our case was the executive director. So, like, we were all gonna, like, get together during the workday and, like, march down to their office, and here’s our letter, and here we all are.

And we’re going public. And when your executive director leaves, that becomes us. Not a feasible option anymore. So that was like, it was kind of like, oh, You don’t just give it to the next senior person? Well, no, the next senior person is the board. Yeah. So you don’t give it to the board president? They’re probably some rich person that lives behind a gate somewhere.

Well, yeah, I mean, and that’s, I mean, so there is no one in the museum to go and do that to. So a lot of our messaging was, had to be directed towards the board. So the board really hires the executive director, right? And so, Technically, the executive director works for the board. So, um, so our messaging really went out to them, which is a totally disparate, um, group of people all over the place.

And so, they had to come together and make a decision of what to do, and they decided to, um, Kind of try to quash the movement. So, I follow a day laborer network on like TikTok and Instagram, and she’s this lady that like talks about union stuff, obviously for day laborers mostly, but I’ve learned some things from that, and she talks about like the tactics that managers use are always the same.

Like there’s a playbook. So, was that your experience, and what is that playbook? Like, what does it look like? Like, so they say no, but then do they come to you individually and say, look, you know what the executive director just left? Like, don’t worry. This is like a new chant. We’re going to, we’re going to, you don’t have to do this because we’re going to bring someone new in and everything’s going to be fine.

Like, do you get that little speech or? Oh, exactly. Okay. Okay. We got exactly that speech. And we, I don’t know, had what seemed like, Forever for me, like, we had conversations with the board about like, about like, Oh, okay, well, you can recognize us right away, like, that’s totally fine. And then being like, No, we need an executive director.

And then I’m getting interim. And then I’m being like, actually, you need the board and then the board. Yeah. So it becomes a run around. And you think that was a stalling tactic? Oh, stalling tactic is huge. Yeah. And like, wait for you guys to eat each other and fall apart. Yeah, they like, essentially, how they came out publicly was like, oh yeah, we support unions, but let’s just not do it here, essentially, um, and so that’s, that’s delay, delay, delay, um, you know.

Well, and I think there’s, so, one of the tactics that was used pretty early on, And I don’t think was super effective on us. Um, but maybe it was, I don’t know. Um, was kind of the, like, and this is really common across everywhere, uh, is that, but we’re a family, like we care about each other, like this is, this is a safe, like cool place where we all care about each other and we really don’t need a union here.

Like that’s just And that’s very, that’s, that must be very hard to hear. And it’s like the very, like, I think the first, um, the first response was a very emotional response. From home though, if it’s a board, how does a board body? You know, just individual members. Oh, I see. And there’s, there’s a hierarchy in, in boards.

There’s, there’s the president, there’s vice president, there’s, you know, there are committees within boards to deal with. things. They actually, you know, formed a committee to deal with the union. And so we dealt with that committee a lot. Um, but yeah, and every time we would mostly an obstacle. Yeah, it was an obstacle because then they say, Oh, we can’t meet here.

We can’t meet there. Two months go by. Um, and you know, no communication. We keep pounding them with Uh, letters and community, you know, support and whatnot. What is your recourse if they’re just stalling? Like, are there laws about this? How, how soon do they have to respond? I’m sure they got a lawyer immediately, right?

Like to help them with this. Yeah, yeah, they did. Um, but, uh, your recourse is to just, uh, either, I mean, what, what that tactic does, that stalling tactic, is, uh, really, uh, It makes it hard on the workers to, to keep the enthusiasm up and then it just dissipates. Yeah. Right. And so, oh, finally. And that’s classic union busting.

And meanwhile at work, what’s going on? You’re there alongside your manager. We’re there. Is it awkward? Most of us. Yeah. Totally. Most of us have. Little bit of a people pleaser over here. So just like walk me through this. Yeah. Relationships with our managers and like that. You know, that was something that you have to think about too, is like, what do you, how do you go into meetings and are like, Yeah, we’re unionizing anyway Yeah, but the thing is too we that we had, you know, i’m good friends with my boss and and uh, And you know the the mid level managers and stuff like that We didn’t have the upper right, you know executive director and and it’s not like There’s the workers and then there’s the managers.

Yeah, right who are Just inherently against unions, right? A lot of them were supportive of us, too. Yeah. Yeah, they got it Yeah, our is particularly the VS manager who doesn’t work at the museum any longer Like they were very supportive to begin with. Mm hmm. So like right from the jump Um, and so that, and of course, they instantly kind of had to be like, I don’t know anything because they’re not protected the same way that we are.

Um, yeah. And, you know, management had to say to them, like, Oh, don’t talk about union stuff. That must make it a little better at work, though. At least it’s like a non topic. Kind of. I mean, there are certain rules that, you know, you have to follow, kind of like you. Um, I also think that, that nobody really knew what they were doing.

There wasn’t, like, a sheet that, like, No, exactly. And so we, you know, we are learning, as we started, you know, slowly learning what it was, what our rights were, but we’ve kind of come out publicly and, you know, They’re all, like, what the hell? What’s a union? What can we do? What can’t we do? And so they have to get caught up with all that learning, too.

So there’s this awkwardness right at the beginning. And especially without, uh, an executive director, leader, kind of, you know, running the, running the show, um, People were kind of in this like, Oh, what do we do type of thing? And so it really gets put on the board at that point. Yeah. In a lot of ways, it was a lot of people like just staring at each other being like, what do we do?

What do we do? Um, in a lot of ways, cause there just wasn’t like really solid, like we didn’t have an executive director. So there just really was just a lot of people that just make the museum run every day. So what was the turning point in all of this awkwardness and stalling? Yeah, I, I don’t think there’s necessarily just one, um, I think, like, for me, the strategy always is, um, we talked about, like, how unions are suppressed and, um, like, union busting tactics, like, stalling is, like, the worst one.

Yeah. Like, it very easily is, like, The most frustrating thing, and like literally every step of the way is like, okay, stall, stall, stall. So, That’s one of the things. So it’s always kind of like a matter of, and then also there’s like, I think it always becomes a matter of like, okay, what’s our reaction. Our reaction is going to be, we’re going to have probably a solidarity action of like with our colleagues, like an action that we’re going to do.

Like in a space at work with all of our workers. And then there’s also actions that are like, this is going to be a community action. So for me, like, I would say one of the turning points for sure was, um, the in March, um, when we had the meeting. So they had the way that the museum is set up. There’s like a classroom up here, which is where they have the board meetings.

And there’s There’s a window that like kind of looks down on the entrance to the, yeah, I know, right? Um, there’s, um, a window that kind of just looks down on the entrance to the museum. So we had a big rally right in front of the museum and we had like, there were people like there were musicians there and we made noise and we were loud.

So it just became absolutely undeniable that. The board had to take action. Um, and we intended to be as disruptive as possible outside of the museum. And so that for me, you can stall, but we’re not going to stop. Well, and that’s the thing too. I think one of the. Things that they’re stalling tactics, how it backfired is, I mean, it could have been demoralizing and it could have just, you know, we could have just broken up.

It was absolutely demoralizing. And we had to work through that. But by sticking together and being strong, you know, That year that we had to fight over and over and over and keep our voices loud, uh, brought us together more and more and more. So once we got to the point, like that one rally, which was, that, it was a good turning point.

I mean, we had, you know, hun hun A hundred couple hundred people out there community showed up for us straight up and so yeah And so that was it was undeniable at that point But then I also I mean they were stalling so much for to get that executive director in And that must have really impacted their search For that director.

I mean, now you need somebody with a whole different list of qualifications almost, right? Did that impact who they chose, do you think? Yes. I mean, the, the museum and museums nationwide are in financial straits, right? Um, so when, what I was, I’m told, um, was the two things that, um, two important things that the board came to candidates with was like, hey, we are in financial straits right now and we’ve got this union thing.

So those are the two big things that we want you to deal with once you get here. Um, and so, yeah, I mean, gosh, if they didn’t tell people about the union, that would have been terrible. So yeah, they, they knew coming into it that this is what they were going to have to deal with. Got it. And I think with that, yeah, I think with that turning point too, that what kind of made it just like timing wise is that our current executive director had was on site that day, like before he was picked.

So they had these kind of, um, these listening sessions and everything, and they brought the candidates out to the museum so that they could talk to the staff and like talk to the board and stuff like that. And the, um, executive director that eventually went on to become, and was probably the most promising, I think, um, was, um, that was there that day on site.

So, um, it, it also was just like, it became like, you always want to think about like pressure points and that just became a really big pressure point. And it just lined up and, you know, once again, we’re like really lucky to have the community that we have that are willing to go to bat for us in ways that are like, are really amazing.

Well, I, and that, and once they did hire, um. Andy, uh, it. I almost could hear a sigh of relief coming from around the houses of the board members in Tacoma. I’m like, oh, it’s not a problem anymore. Because they were once again with someone to pressure. Yeah, but ironically, um, as they would tell us for that whole year, like, oh, we got to wait for an executive director.

And then when it finally, they hired one, they realized, oh, it’s actually is our. decision. Wow. So it’s like, it wasn’t the executive director’s decision, he had, you know, uh, uh, a say in it. Yeah, absolutely. It’s like he had his opinion. But really, it was always the board’s decision whether or not they would voluntarily recognize this.

That is a totally different path towards unionization, recognition, than whether What we could have done is go directly to the NLRB in order to force recognition on the museum. So you were trying to do it, like, the collaborative way. For some specific reasons, too. What are the reasons? The biggest one is, um, there is a law in the National Labor and Relations Act, um, which came about in the, I don’t know, 30s and 40s, well, and there’s an addendum to it in the 1938 or so, if you think back to That era, when people were unionizing, it was like them getting together and going to the factory and destroying, you know, all the stuff.

It was much more violent back then. So there’s this law put in that, um, The conditions were also more deadly, right? Like, right. But during that time that was put in and, and, What was put in was, uh, that security workers could not be in the same union as everybody else. Makes sense. Yeah. The problem with museums and cultural workers is that those frontline staff Is this gray area?

Are they there just to take tickets? Or are they security? So do they try to divide you? So they try to divide. That’s another tactic. It’s like, well, we can’t have visitor services as part of this, you know, and the same union as, as the administrative staff is the blue collar workers need to have something different than the white collar workers.

Um, so, so there’s, if we would have gone to the NLRB. They could have decided, well no, visitor services is security so you guys have to split up. And there’s other museums where that has happened. And it didn’t come out so great. Well, not for them, then you have to form like two different unions, I mean, which is stupid for our museum, which is a small to mid sized, and, you know, you have 40 workers, um, two unions, it’s just ridiculous, absolutely, and all the problems that we’re going to be fighting for, uh, are remarkably cross departmental, yeah.

And so that was a huge sticking point, um, for the board, and which we, we absolutely did not want, um, to break our collective. And so we could have done that. We could have gone to the NLRB and force it on them, but we had that kind of, uh, worry. And so instead, we decided when they first came out and said, no, we can’t do it, but go ahead and do the NLRB thing.

We said, no, we’re going to stay together and we’re going to fight this thing until you voluntarily recognize us. And they didn’t do that for an entire year. Yeah. And. Um, I think labor law, I think something we don’t realize is that it’s like very stuck in the 1930s, and there’s a lot of classism, a lot of transphobia involved in it, and Yeah, baked into that law.

Yeah. Which the Supreme Court actually, uh, took up way back then and said, well, this is discriminatory. Yeah. You can’t do this. And then they got to work around in order to. And one of the reasons to divide, like the, I think the, if like the macro strategy for organizations that don’t want their workers to unionize is to, it’s always going to be to break up groups, um, because smaller groups are always easier to deal with for the most part.

So one of the things that like in the thirties and forties. The laws that came through were to divide white collar and blue collar workers with the idea of, like, making sure that people didn’t unionize across race lines. There’s, like, a very, like, racist history to it of, like, And also I think there’s like a value judgment of like, whose work is important and like, who is a blue collar worker and who’s a white collar worker.

And like, um, in a lot of our like negotiations, like being a white collar worker actually gave you more voting because you get to vote and be like, it’s like, there’s an option that, um, that your employer can be like, essentially, how can I explain this? Um, essentially like white collar workers have to kind of consent in a way to unionize with blue collar workers and say, we want to unionize with you.

Yeah, it’s not the other way. So, um, so, like, the people, like, at one point there was a list of all of us and, like, whether we were a professional worker and, yeah, I’m unprofessional, by the way. Unprofessional. Well, I don’t know if they actually said that. They never said that, but that’s how I take it.

Professional or nothing. Or nothing. Professional. And, you know. You got the checkbox or you didn’t? Didn’t. Yeah. And so it’s really. interesting. Also, it’s based on nothing. Like, honestly, it’s based on class. Yeah, largely, and perceived class. So yeah, we’ve we found that to be pretty messed up. So instead, we stayed together.

Amazing. So okay, from I heard you say like, there was a year of stalling before they acknowledged the union. But like, from the day you First, the first two people said, Hmm, you know, maybe we should start thinking about doing this to when your union was acknowledged. How long did that take? What should someone expect?

A year and a half? A year and a half. Well, yeah, about a year and a half. Because it was over, it was almost. Just over a year from when we went public to when we actually had, uh, which they finally said, Okay, let’s have an official election. You have to have an official election at the museum. Well, and they wouldn’t let us just because with voluntary recognition, usually how that works is, um, you sign union cards.

Union cards are just being like, I want the union to represent me and I agree to unionize. I imagine the art museum, they were cute. They were pretty. No. No? The NLRB designs them. Oh, boo. Okay. They’re boring. Yeah, unfortunately. Okay. Um, I wish. Um, and so, you know, we all sign our union cards, and basically, like, uh, What boards and like organizations have the ability to do is say like, okay, they, we have like, it looks like a majority of our workers are going to unionize like we don’t have to go to a vote, we can just recognize this union right off the bat, our, our museum did not do that.

decide to do that in the end, they decided cheaper option. Yeah. It was a much cheaper option. Um, they decided that they wanted a, um, they wouldn’t make us go through an NLRB vote, but they would allow us to go through or that we didn’t want to go through an NLRB vote, they decided that we could do a third party vote, um, which is essentially a way of just like reaffirming that like, yes, a majority of workers support the union.

So that happened in November. So it was like spring 2020 to, um, this November. And by the way, we got 100 percent of our vote. So which is can’t overstate that. Yes. Yeah. Spring 2020 to November of 23. Yeah. Yeah. And just a quick question. Sorry. So you said that if they had just accepted when you guys all fill out your union cards, if they just said, okay, cool.

That was the cheaper option. It’s cheaper because you have to hire a neutral third party arbiter. Um, and, uh, you know, go through that whole process. Lawyers are expensive. Right? Yeah. So, in the end, you are, so you’re now a union. You’re a recognized union by your workplace, by the government. Yes. Yes, we are.

Now what happens? Well, we, we start the bargaining process for a first contract. So that hasn’t, so that hasn’t happened yet. So, okay. So, so what, what, what are you asking for? That is a question. You’re like, I’m just done. Okay. Yeah. So that, once again, that’s where it comes back to like the collective into our group is we get to decide what we’re fighting for.

Um. Um, and decide what’s important to our group. Now, we’ve talked about, you know, the things that could change, like, at the beginning, we’ve talked about the things that we would love to have changed, but when there’s, like, a more formal process that we That happens once you are a union, you have to start doing things really formally when you become a union.

Um, and, um, which is cool in a lot of ways. Um, and so that is a process that, you know, we’re going to be doing is deciding what, you know, we’ve had all these conversations with each other about what needs to change. Now we’re going to come together and decide, like, What are we actually, what do we think we can achieve?

What, what are our goals? Um, yeah, so once you actually, uh, officially are recognized, I mean, you, that does come with certain rights right off the bat. Um, but, you know, Yeah, we are at the point now where we, in the next couple of weeks, uh, we will decide who we want to represent us, uh, amongst the workers who’s going to be our bargaining committee members.

Um, and so there’ll be a handful of people that, uh, You know, we, as a collective, will come together and vote on who we want to represent us at the negotiating table. That will happen in the next couple of weeks. We’ll have a little bit of training and, for those people, and then, In the next month or so, we’ll probably have a couple of meetings with the entire group, and we’ll come up with all those things that we want to be fighting for at the bargaining table.

Yeah. And, and, um, yeah, which, which can be extremely hard. Like the Philadelphia, Um, Museum, which got the most press, um, in the last, uh, year or two, um, was when they went on strike for, like, gosh, how many days? Like, nine days or two weeks or something like that. I mean, you know, way bigger museum than us. Um, but that got a lot of, um, Press because they were officially recognized, but they were working through their first contract and it had been like a couple years and the, their, um, you know, executives kept stalling.

And so they had to strike. Um, and so they did. Um, so, um, When we get to the bargaining table, there’s always that worry, too, that, that, again, those stalling techniques could come out, um, and we’ll be stalled. Yeah. Throughout the process, so we don’t quite know how long this will take before we get our first contract, which is the hardest, the first contract.

Um, but If everyone plays nice and we, um, can come to some agreements, it doesn’t have to. I mean, there’s not, we, like I said, we haven’t striked yet. Um, and there’s, it’s not, that is, Something in our arsenal that we But it’s not inevitable. It’s not inevitable. So hopefully, you know, we might get a first contract by the end of the year.

Yeah. Um, which would be great. Yeah. And, and we are, what we’re fighting for is, um, any number of things. We’ll have to have those talks, but one is a livable wage. A lot of the, um, Visitor Services staff, especially our lowest paid workers. And they have no health care. And they have no health care. For a long time.

Full time employees? No health care? They’re part time. Okay. They can only work 30 hours. Oh, so they’re capped. So they don’t get health care. Oh, okay. And that started a number of years ago. And it doesn’t have to be like that. No, certainly not. And so stuff like that, getting people health care, getting people a livable wage, With the hours they need, so that, you know, you don’t have to work two or three jobs.

Yeah. Um, for the prestige of working in a museum. Which is a whole nother thing. I think There’s some history there. Yeah, also with like, for like, our visitor services, like, obviously I’m a queer person, and I’m trans. And, the, there is a large majority of our, um, of our visitor services and our frontline workers, um, including myself are trans, um, or queer, which is really cool.

Um, but the other thing is like, As a trans person, I know healthcare is so important, like, so important, and also making a living wage is so important, and so, like, that’s what really, like, a lot, like, that’s a really big fuel, too, is to, like, make sure that, like, we’re, we need to pay livable wages, especially, like, you know, we have the more, the most vulnerable population that are all frontline workers that make, you know, Kind of the least.

And there’s other, there’s so many other things that are structural changes that need to happen at the museum. For instance, making sure that we have, uh, annual reviews and annual updates to job descriptions. And looking at those job descriptions and saying, oh, you’re doing twice the amount of work this year.

that you used to do, maybe you deserve compensation. So I haven’t, I haven’t had a real job since I was 25 because I’m obviously a worker in real estate. I work for myself. Um, but don’t you, I thought you had to have an annual review. Oh, like, of course, it’s like in the, our handbook or whatever, but you know, I had worked there four years.

I think I had one, maybe, and a lot of people had have no recourse if you don’t get that? Because you can’t even raise without a review. Then your recourse will happen once you get your first contract and that’s in the, you know, That’s written out in our contract. So stuff like that, creating a structure that is more equitable to everyone is also what the union is going to be trying to do.

Um, and those things are really important because once you have that skeleton, that structure of, of all these things that should be happening, um, You can’t get around that. It, it, it used to be a much more hierarchical system. Used to be, and you know, and that, the vestiges of that is still around, where it’s all top down.

Yeah. And it was way worse. And, and depending on who is up there in the, uh, as the ED or whatever. Yeah. It could be. What they say goes. The culture could be really bad. It could be really retaliate. Retaliatory, um, that’s another thing, disciplinary, um, kind of, uh, procedures and whatnot are just kind of willy nilly right now.

So those things we want to codify, um, better practices. So is it oversimplifying this idea that, like, if you don’t have a union, you could be fired any time, and if you do have a union, you can’t just fire somebody without, like, having a clear documented. Is that, is that, uh, is that too black and white, or? I would say that’s a good way of saying it, just in simple terms.

Okay. Yeah, I mean, you know. Employers can’t just willy nilly fire anyone, uh, just in general. There are labor protections for just individuals. But, um, but yeah, it’s way easier to fire people if you don’t have that. Um, that, that is also a way of retaining power at the top. Right. Is, if you have the power to just get rid of people, you know, people are going to be afraid of you, and do what you want, and, and what not, so, um, That’s the other thing about the union, is it’s giving us a voice at the table.

And the thing is, we are the ones that run the museum. We know what is, how to run a museum. We know the ins and outs of, of, you know, how it works. And especially, you know, board members. And they’re the ultimate bosses, right? They, um, if they, uh, they, they don’t, they haven’t given us a seat at the table in order to make decisions that affect us the most.

Well, where my head is going is like the class dynamics of who ends up on an art museum board, right? It’s going to be, you know, wealthy people, heads of large corporations, um, rich kids, because it’s a fundraising role. I mean, largely to be on a board, I would imagine, I mean, this, the social connections you get from being there, and then also you have access to the kind of people that can bring real money into the organization.

That’s what an art museum board is for, right? That, and that I think is what’s structurally messed up about museums. And, and, For me, this goes back to the beginning of museums in the American culture, which, you know, in the late 1800s, early 1900s, was rich people. I mean, a lot of the early museums were really just for the upper class.

Right. And then you had these ultra rich people that, you know, set up libraries in, you know, Carnegie and all those Rockefeller people. Uh, And then they decided, well, let’s, let’s put all this, these rich people’s collections together and let’s call them a museum for the people. And give them massive tax breaks.

Exactly. There was, there was. And there are. A tax, a, gosh, I can’t remember what year it was, but it was, yeah, early 19th century was this. law enacted in order to give huge tax breaks. And so, so these are rich people that art museums are a little side gig for them, right? Yeah. And so they start these museums for the betterment of our community.

And an amazing tax break. This is where that prestige thing comes in. Right. From the very beginning, it was It was, you know, wealthy people that started this thing that, um, was their side gigs that, you know, are their vanity project. Right. That they wanted their name on the outside of this museum. Always.

And, um, they’re running the show and they want to do it on the cheap because this is, this is just a, Right. You’re welcome. And so, yeah. And then, like, docent programs that, that got, um, enacted around the same time. They were free workers, educators. Um, and so, that has just, you know, Then how American museums work in Europe, they’re way more subsidized by the government.

Hmm. And so you don’t have, um, that dynamic, but right now in the cultural worker, um, uh, you know, museums and whatnot, it’s really dependent on high-end donors. And I think that’s, yeah, it was just structurally, um, messed up. And that decides who’s kind of welcome at museums in general, because of that dynamic in museums across the country.

And historically, that means that. The, um, most wealthy among us get to decide, like, what is the most valuable art? What is the prized art? Who should be coming in to see the art? When they should be coming in to see the art? And one of the things that I have kind of, one of the reasons that I came to TAM actually was because of this idea of like, art is kind of for everyone, and that like, we’re trying to kind of transform and allow and open up.

Art so that everyone can feel welcome included that we’re showing different kinds of art that we’re showing different kinds of people’s art and that and that also like all kinds of people can come and see art and that it’s accessible to everyone and that’s one of those things of like like that for me is like a really big picture goal but one of the way like It’s one of the reasons that I specifically decided to unionize was because it’s really hard to accomplish like everyone’s welcome here and this is a great place and we respect all artists from all backgrounds and all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

It’s really hard to say that and like, be like, and we pay artists fairly when we don’t pay our workers fairly. Like that is kind of a starting point for that change. For me, it’s really difficult to be like, we treat everyone fairly, but our workers. So that, that’s kind of the why it is so important.

Hypocrisy there. Yeah, absolutely. And, and that’s the other thing is I think museums are changing to be, um, less like put the art on the wall, come in, look at it, it’s good for you, because we say it’s good for you, and then you leave. It’s, they’re becoming much more cultural hubs, and, um, and that is really, I think, worker led, um, the people at the museums, um, Making the decision to look at, you know, our collection made up of 90 whatever percent white males, um, artists or whatever.

Oh, we need to change this, um, change this pattern and whatnot. We need to bring in different voices into the collection itself. And yet we have, you know, oftentimes older, wealthy people that have, have their collections that they want to give. But they started collecting way back when, when it was all just white, old men, um, making the art or who actually were, um, You know, connected enough to where they buy, you know, wealthy people would buy it.

And so it’s this, I think the workers are much more on the leading edge of what museums should do than board members and the wealthy donor class. And so that is the structure that I think is kind of messed up because we’re so dependent on those. that donor class, which is older, oftentimes just white, um, people that are supposedly making all the decisions that affect us.

But, um, we want that change and to be a more, um, vital part of our community. And, um, we need to be given the power in order to do that. And that, and that equity that we’re seeking for the entire community also needs to happen for those people that actually work in those, in that building. Yeah. You got to start with a business model that’s built to take care of the people that are going to bring you the art.

Yeah. Yeah. And allow people to do their jobs. Yeah. You know, that that’s such a, there were just before the union, there were just so many obstacles to people just like, Doing their actual jobs and just, uh, which is silly, but comes out like come to figure it like when we all kind of work together, like, Oh, wow, we can actually all do our jobs a little bit better.

Yeah. And the, the, the thing too, with, uh, cultural workers, you know, starting to unite to unions, it’s, it’s a different industry than like the automobile workers or something like that, where you’re, you are. picketing against, um, ultra rich people that are with tons of profits and whatnot. In the cultural industry, every, especially after the pandemic, you know, we’re in financial, you know, hardship.

Right. I mean, that’s across the board. Right. And so, um, so it’s hard to balance change that needs to happen. Um, with. That same reality that we are financially, um, restricted, and, um, and so we feel like the workers are the ones that can actually help buoy the, the entire industry out of those financial hardships.

Right. Um, and we need to be given the power in order to do that. Well, it sounds like. You are on your way. Yeah, one step at a time. One step at a time. It’s hard, but, yeah. So, uh, I don’t know who I was messaging when I was messaging your social media account, but that person said that there was some kind of an event happening on March 21st.

So can you tell me, what is that? And is it open to the public? What are you guys doing on the 21st? Well, um, it’s on a Thursday. Thursday evening from 5 to 6. 30 to 6 30. I will want to say that the museum is always free from 5 p. m. to 8 p. m. on Thursday. So everyone can always come. And, and that’s kind of what I was trying to get at.

Also, it’s like, as, as a union, we, we don’t want to boycott or anything. We’ve always, the more people that come into the museum, the better it is for the workers. Great. Okay. So there’s that message is clear. Yes. But on that 21st event, it’s really a celebration of the union, a celebration of our, um, our, our election win.

Um, and so we are just inviting the community members that have supported us over the entire year, the union, um, our union brothers and sisters to come in. Um, And just join us in a celebration, we’re going to be giving out t shirts and local businesses have kind of given discounts and whatnot that we can give out.

We also have an art installation like in the galleries. Um, that is, uh, so, we had all these t shirts that we wore every Thursday, um, when we were in the process of unionizing and we were public. And they’re really cool. They turned out really cool. We have an awesome logo and everything. And um, so we wore them like every Thursday.

every single week and wore them to all these events and everything. Um, and by the end, I was like, I never want to wear that shirt again. Just because it’s like, I wore it so much. Yeah. Um, but they, um, as a part of one of our exhibitions, um, the curatorial and, um, has, um, Collected all of our shirts that we wore like every single week and has like put them together and displayed them and um, so now that exhibition or that um, That piece is open now.

And so it’s just like a whole wall of just like Like all of our shirts that, and everyone’s creative in our museum, like naturally. Um, and so like a lot of people customize their shirts in different ways, like sewed, like stuff on them or like cropped them in interesting ways. Some people dyed them, um, I didn’t do anything with mine.

Um, I just washed mine and wore it. Um, but so it’s cool to see all of these shirts that are like, that we all wore that are all like different sizes and now all different colors and different like, um, With stains and pits and stuff. I mean, you say, it’s so cool to see them all together. Uh, so the, the exhibition and shout out to Ellen Ito, who, uh, curated, she’s, uh, one of the curators at, uh, the museum.

She curated this museum, uh, this exhibition called Soft Power, which is all different, um, soft materials, fabrics, and thread, and whatnot, weaving, um, that, you know, I think the tagline is soft materials, powerful ideas, and it’s all about, um, issues of identity. Hard, hard issues, um, through these, um, Soft.

Materials. And so, this installation of our t shirts fits just perfectly with that, because it is a soft material, it is a, uh, kind of a pedestrian thing that everyone just needs But collectively when you see all those things on the wall and you see all those different sizes, different, you know, modifications, the, the pit stains and the, and, um, you realize, Each person behind those identical t shirts with our logo on them are all different people, but collectively, it becomes a powerful statement.

And so we’re inviting the community in to see those, and hopefully we’ll get hundreds of people, you know, Hundreds more than we normally get. We normally get good crowd, but we’re hoping to get tons of people, and it’s just a celebration. Celebration of us, and you know, celebration of what we did, and a, and um, encouragement for the bargaining process, which should be happening in next month or two.

Fantastic. So, in closing, do you have any advice for workers who might be At the very beginning of imagining forming the union, like just if you had a couple sentences of advice for anyone who might be listening, thinking, okay, I want to do this. Yeah. Uh, I would say for me, I always kind of like my motto with this was like, I’m just going to do what’s right.

And that for me was really what has held me through the whole process. Um, it’s just like, always like, am I going to do what’s right here? Yeah, I’m going to do what’s right, because this is right for all of us, and it’s the right thing to do. And, um, it’s the right way to be, um, to, It’s the way that we can instill justice and fairness in our workplace.

And then the other, for me, would be like, maybe think about getting a therapist. Okay. Because you’re probably going to need it. Yeah. Just set up some rolling appointments. It’s stressful. It’s very stressful. Be ready for emotions, be ready for stress, but you’re on the side of justice. Yeah, well, and, and what I find just amazing, uh, because we get to talk to museum workers and unions across the nation, is how just strikingly similar all museums are and all the problems in all the different museums, which shows how systematic, uh, systemic it is.

Um. I think, uh, for individual workers in museums, um, realizing, you know what, this isn’t just you. Um, we are all kind of stuck in this broken system. And, um, And it is the collective get together. Because things are changing, and we’re gonna do it together. And if you can, if that one person can talk to the next person, who can talk to the next person, you’re gonna realize, oh my gosh, all of our problems are the same.

And if we stick together, uh, we can enact that change that needs to happen. And It happened at TAM and things have changed for the better already. Amazing. The culture is so much better. And so it does get better. And if more and more people Museums do this. It buoys everybody up. We’re going to work on our museum, but if they do theirs, it’s going to help our cause as well.

And we can change the entire industry if we all do it together. That’s awesome. Thank you both for being willing to come on and share about all this. Like, it’s so interesting, and I’m so excited for you, and I’m going to try to come on the 21st. 21st. So congratulations. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming.

This is fun.

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Show Notes

Tacoma is a union town. Stephen Rue and Carrie Morton from Tacoma Art Museum Workers United share about forming a union at the Tacoma Art Museum. They share about the conditions at the museum that led them to decide to form a union, their long journey to being recognized, and what's involved as they go to the bargaining table to negotiate their first contract.

Tacoma Art Museum Workers United

In this episode of the Move to Tacoma podcast, part of Channel 253, the focus shifts to the unique dynamics and challenges faced by workers at cultural institutions, specifically the Tacoma Art Museum, and their journey toward forming a union. We hear from Stephen Ru and Carrie Morton, two museum workers at the forefront of the unionization effort. The episode focusses on the unionization process at the Tacoma Art Museum. Both Steven and Carrie share their backgrounds, including their initial motivations to move to Tacoma and their respective roles at the museum. Steven serves as the Lead Preparator, involved in the hands-on aspects of art installation and exhibition design, while Carrie, initially part of the visitor services team, is now the store manager, curating art from local artists for the museum shop. The conversation delves into the broader issue of worker rights and conditions in the arts sector, highlighting the often overlooked fact that passionate involvement in cultural work—such as in museums—doesn’t always equate to fair compensation or working conditions. This segment of the discussion sheds light on the misconception that the prestige of working in cultural institutions can substitute for adequate pay, leading to the realization among the museum staff that forming a union was a necessary step toward advocating for their rights and improving their workplace.

Tacoma is a Union Town

Stephen and Carrie talk about how Tacoma is a Union Town with a history of strong unions. They share what they've learned about forming a union in Tacoma. Especially the importance of solidarity, the power of collective action, and the impact of community support in their unionization journey. The union’s efforts were not only about addressing immediate concerns like wages and working conditions but also about broader aspirations for equity and justice within the museum and the cultural sector at large. The podcast captures the emotional and logistical complexities of the unionization process, including the engagement with the museum's administration and board, the role of external union organizations in providing support and guidance, and the pivotal moments that galvanized the museum workers to persist in their efforts despite obstacles. The successful formation of the union at TAM stands as a testament to the power of collective action and the possibility of positive change in the workplace in Tacoma and in museums across the country.