Workers at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus are the latest group of art institution employees to join the nationwide unionsing movement. Museum staff across departments including art handlers, curators and educators sent a letter to officials at the university and the Wexner Center on 4 March announcing their intentions to form a union with the Ohio Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
“We believe our endeavour is inextricably linked to the centre’s stated mission and ongoing commitment to social justice and institutional transformation. These goals can only be realised through deep structural change,” the unionising staff members in the Wex Workers United collective wrote.
The issues that prompted staff at the Wexner to unionise are primarily systemic issues affecting the museum industry at large such as low wages, benefits, health and safety concerns. In 2019, workers across various departments began efforts to form a union; their cause gained new urgency after Covid-19 hit, prompting layoffs and furloughs.
“Some of us had been talking about a union for a while, but the pandemic really pushed it into the realm of reality,” says Jo Snyder, a coordinator of the learning a public practice programme at the Wexner involved in the organising effort. “In particular, I think about the front-facing staff who were brought back to work in person during the fall of 2020, before a Covid vaccine even existed. Broadly speaking, those are some of our lowest-paid employees and they were asked to risk their health in a time when many of us could still work from home. There are other issues, of course––just like any workplace––but that was a moment that solidified for us just how badly workers need a voice on the job.”
Matthew Reber, the manager of retail operations and buyer at the Wexner, is assisting the union effort by coordinating between departments and “making connections between workers who may not otherwise have interacted with each other”. He says that seeing friends furloughed and made to work in front-facing positions during the pre-vaccine era of the pandemic prompted him to get involved with Wex Workers.
The group's members have filed their petition with the State Employment Relations Board (SERB) and now await the next steps in the process, which will depend in part on whether or not the centre’s administration voluntarily acknowledges the union or if they will have to hold elections. While it's hard to determine the exact number of Wexner staff who are currently involved in or support unionising efforts, a spokesperson for AFSCME says “an overwhelming majority of the coworkers that our employee leaders spoke with signed union cards and are committed to voting for a union”.
In an email statement to The Art Newspaper, the Wexner’s co-interim executive directors Kelly Stevelt and Megan Cavanaugh said, “We greatly value our employees and appreciate all they do to support the Wexner Center for the Arts and our mission. We are grateful for our colleagues and appreciate them making their voices heard. Wex Workers United have filed a Petition for Representation Election with SERB. We are actively working with the university to appropriately follow SERB’s process in response to their request to hold an election. We support our employees’ right to vote on whether they wish to be represented by a union or not.”
The Wex Workers union campaign comes amid a wave of such efforts at museums across the US, many of them spurred by longstanding problems in the sector such as low pay and meager benefits, which were extenuated by layoffs, cutbacks, hiring and salary freezes, and myriad other issues caused by the pandemic. In recent years staff at dozens of US art institutions—including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Art Institute of Chicago school and museum—have either formed unions or taken steps to do so.