State Legislators Sign Letter Of Support For Portland Museum Of Art Unionization Efforts

Nov 18, 2020

Thirty-nine state legislators and one Portland city councilor have signed a letter asking the Portland Museum of Art not to impede a staff effort to unionize.

Organizers allege the PMA has engaged in “union busting” tactics through emails and meetings, saying the museum exerted pressure on staff members, attempted to dictate the bargaining unit’s composition, and tried to dictate how the vote could be held.

State Rep. Mike Sylvester, current House chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Labor and Housing, says the PMA’s response to the prospect of becoming a union shop is not uncommon.

“The employer has all the power and the workers have limited rights under the law, and so that’s a comfortable position if you’re the person who holds all the power,” he says. “When workers do this, clearly they’ve made a decision that they have more in common than they have different, even if they do different jobs. And that’s something I think we encourage in this country. I think there’s enough things that divide us, that when workers in the workplace come together, we let them make the decision on their own.”

Mark Bessire in 2016.
Credit Nora Flaherty / Maine Public file

Museum Director Mark Bessire denies that the museum is union busting. He says he wants every employee to have a thorough understanding of the issues, and to have a voice.

“So that the will of this group of staff who are in this voting unit can speak. And we’re going to do everything possible to be sure that happens and that it’s fair, positive, and educational and that has been our mantra from the beginning,” he says.

Bessire says he is still not aware of any specific staff grievances that would have led to the move, but organizers have cited low wages, scarce hours and a lack of job security as factors.

PMA says it supports the right of its staff to organize, although the museum says to do so will have a “negative effect on the existing level of communication and cooperation between staff and management.”

In September, employees applied for membership in the UAW Local 2110, whose membership includes workers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Bronx Museum of Art, the ACLU and the Village Voice.

PMA employees vote by mail Nov. 30-Dec. 21.