Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Glenstone museum workers form union after contentious campaign


Employees at Glenstone, the private contemporary art museum in Potomac, Md., voted on Thursday and Friday to form a union with the Teamsters for hourly workers.

The final vote came late Friday evening, following pressure from the museum’s billionaire founders Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales to oppose the move.

Now the group of 89 eligible hourly-wage workers — among them guides and cafe employees as well as grounds, maintenance and housekeeping staff — will join Teamsters Local 639 and begin the bargaining process with museum management.

“We have said from the beginning of this process that we respect the right of our associates to decide whether to join a union,” the museum said in a statement. “We accept the results of this election and intend to negotiate in good faith with the goal of achieving an equitable contract for the members of this new bargaining unit.”

With the vote, Glenstone joins a host of art museums whose employees have formed unions over the past few years. According to a labor group called Museums Moving Forward, nearly three-quarters of all unionized private nonprofit art museums launched their campaigns in 2019 or later.

“These workers defeated a sophisticated union-busting assault personally waged by some of the wealthiest people in America,” Local 639 President Bill Davis said in a statement. “I want to welcome them to our local union, and I look forward to helping them negotiate a first Teamsters contract.”

Among peer institutions that have seen successful labor drives, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Guggenheim Museum in New York, Glenstone is a relative newcomer. The museum opened in 2006 as a private center for the art collection of the Raleses, who live across a pond from the museum’s galleries. In 2015, it was one of several private museums whose tax-exempt status came under congressional scrutiny, led by then-Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). A 2018 expansion brought in a wider audience.

Elizabeth Shaw, a union organizer who works as a grounds and visitor experience liaison, said the group is ready to put aside weeks of “animosity and hurt” leading to the election as the two sides negotiate a contract.

“Far more important” than negotiation, the museum said in its statement, “we recommit ourselves to working in a spirit of direct and meaningful engagement, in keeping with Glenstone’s core values, to strengthen and continually improve our community, union and non-union associates alike. Our main goal is for us to draw together and move forward as one Glenstone.”

Shaw, an outspoken organizer at the museum, says that the vote is proof of the power of collective action. But she may not be around to reap the fruits of her labor. Shaw is a full-time contract employee whose term is up in September; at that time she is eligible to apply for a permanent position.

Shaw hopes to support her colleagues for as long as she’s with the museum. “We have a long, difficult road ahead of us.”



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