Why we need unions in art museums


I have fond memories of my early days as a museum guard, when I experienced being in a union for the first time. Danny Meagher, our union president at the Harvard Art Museums, was a character. An ardent Civil War enthusiast, he dressed for the role and had to appear as some kind of apparition on the hallowed grounds of Harvard Yard in his Union Prussian blue coat and forage cap. Sitting across from buttoned-up college lawyers during contract negotiations, Meagher said things like, “There will be blood in the streets! without the slightest trace of irony.

When I started working as a museum guard at the Harvard Art Museums in 2001, the union was in the midst of a months-long contract negotiation, the second of its kind since its inception in the 1990s. Meagher was , of course, at the forefront of the effort. The Harvard University Museum Security, Parking, and Guards Union (HUSPMGU, or “Husp-Mu-Goo” as Meagher liked to call it) was the smallest but most rambling union on campus and negotiated, among other things, a higher salary. The left-wing student body has often shown solidarity with us in negotiations, both in print in the Harvard Crimson and on the ground with signs at Harvard Yard. My starting rate was only a few dollars above minimum wage. It was the first time, and so far the only time I was in a union and I didn’t think much about it one way or another – until the end of my freshman year. when the contract was finalized. A fellow custodian who attended the union meeting told me he “almost cried” when he heard the news that the university had agreed to raise our pay a few more dollars. In addition, we will receive a retroactive wage differential dating back to the start of negotiations. Although I’m sure a large portion of them went to eat and drink at Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square, our next paychecks were huge! We were winners.

Danny Meagher at the Harvard Art Museum in 2001 (photo by author)

This does not mean that better pay is the only reason to support unions. On the one hand, a union would end”at will“Employment”, the default employee contract practiced in most municipalities in the United States where, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, “An employee can be hired or fired for almost any reason – whether it whether right or wrong – or no reason at all.” Second, although many workers enjoy some form of benefits package, it can most likely be improved and updated by filling in the gaps or formalizing discretionary conditions. Last but not least: job protection. Too often, when incidents arise between supervisors and their subordinates, management and human resources simply side with the supervisor. Union representation in such proceedings would greatly improve a worker’s ability to assert his position and defend his job. In fact, I know from personal experience that having someone from the union present — someone who was at the my side — changes the whole dynamic of the situation. Meagher has bailed me out more than once.

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Today I work at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where a few months ago the workers started forming a union. We are still in the early stages and expect to hold elections this spring. The BMA union arrives a few months later a similar campaign began at the Walters Art Museumthe second biggest Baltimore Museum of Art. Both initiatives have grown during the pandemic and are part of a larger trend towards unionization art museums and other cultural institutions across the country. I’ve worked at several art museums since Harvard (one in Boston, two in Baltimore), none of which were unionized. And although I had positive experiences in all of them, I felt my job was safer in a union. This is why I fully support the formation of the BMA union.

Baltimore Museum of Art workers rally outside the museum to show solidarity (image courtesy of Union BMA)

Unions, traditionally associated with more manual types of work like manufacturing or mining, are badly needed for art museums. As custodians, we are responsible for protecting history’s greatest treasures from damage or theft. While this might seem like a fairly basic job most of the time, a range of situations can arise at any time, and it’s the museum caretaker’s job to spring into action when necessary. But it’s not just guards who would benefit from a union; many other museum staff are paid below market standards and are overworked. As such, the BMA union tries to avoid the separation of security from other departments, which was the case at the Harvard Art Museums.

On my last day there, Meagher asked me to photograph him standing next to various works of art as we walked through the galleries of the Harvard Art Museums together one last time. I had to stop laughing every time I went to take a picture because he looked so serious. When I caught up with him on the phone recently, I was happy to hear that he was doing well, enjoying his retirement with his wife and their “strange dog and cat” while he learned the harp and worked on a second book of poetry, written in English. and Gaelic. I see now that he was so serious posing for those photos years ago because he took his job as a caretaker and union president seriously. “You live better when you work in a union,” he told me on the phone. “Especially when you work in an art museum, because you work for elitists.”


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