About 300 Field Museum workers will join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 after ballots are counted in their union election Thursday.
The vote made the natural history museum the second major Chicago museum after the Art Institute to join forces with AFSCME Council 31, whose ranks have swelled with cultural workers over the past year.
Field museum employees, who include collection assistants and technicians, visitor services representatives, exhibit designers, research scientists and facility staff, filed for union election with the National Labor Relations Board in December after going public with their company last fall. Museum management refused to voluntarily recognize their union, which led to the election, said Anders Lindahl, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31.
According to the trade union, 175 museum employees voted for union, 66 against. Dozens of contested ballots were not counted. In a press release, the union accused the museum management of an “aggressive and expensive anti-union campaign.”
In a statement, the Field Museum did not directly respond to the allegations, but said it would negotiate with the union in good faith.
“While the election process has generated strong feelings and opposing views, we are united once again in service to our visitors, our community and our world,” the museum said. “Our leadership team is ready to begin good faith negotiations on an initial contract with AFSCME. We look forward to reaching an agreement.”
Kalina Yakimets, collection assistant and member of the association’s organizing committee, says that wages are the main problem of museum employees.
“People are worried about paying rent, having a car that works, being able to afford commuting,” said Yakymets, who organizes, preserves and prepares zoological specimens for research.
Lindahl said low-wage employees in the Field Museum unit make between $16.50 and $18 an hour and that most members of the new bargaining unit make less than $44,000 a year.
“Museum staff never had a voice or an opportunity to advocate for themselves,” said Yakimets, who has worked at the museum for ten years. She cited high staff turnover and the pay gap as additional issues of concern to employees.
“I really wanted to unite with my colleagues,” she said, “so that our voice would have power, so that people would listen to us, so that we would have a seat at the table.”
When they launched the union action, workers at the field museum pointed to what they called low wages, limited opportunities for promotion, high turnover and the museum’s reliance on grant-funded temporary workers instead of permanent employees.
“Our skills and experience are invaluable to the museum’s success. It is time for our voice to be heard and respected. Only by creating a trade union will we gain the respect and dignity at work we deserve,” the museum’s employees wrote in an open letter last fall.
Chicago’s first major museum union was formed at the Art Institute, where staff unionized in January 2022. Field Museum staff said they were inspired by the company of Art Museum staff. last year part-time faculty track and staff at the Art Institute affiliate school also teamed up with AFSCME Council 31. So did the staff at the Newberry Library, an independent research library on the Near North Side.
Lindall declined to say whether the union plans to organize with workers at other Museum Campus facilities.