.Sonoma Valley Museum of Art Staff Unionizes

Labor unions are forming across the country, in both large scale companies like Amazon, REI and Starbucks and also in smaller organizations right in our backyard. Recently, workers at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art elected to form and are in the process of implementing a union. 

In layman’s terms, a union is an amalgam of workers into a single body such that they gain leverage in negotiating salary, benefits and working conditions, and respond with impact if their requirements are not met.

After decades of labor retreat, 2022 has proved promising for unions so far. By April 11, 19 Starbucks locations had voted to unionize with dozens of other locations attempting to follow suit. Then, on April 1, the independent Amazon Labor Union made history by successfully unionizing a Staten Island warehouse. 

The fight is by no means over. Starbucks is resisting the upswell in union activity and Amazon is attempting to overturn the Amazon Labor Union’s victory,  accusing  organizers of using “intimidation tactics” in soliciting votes. 

In the wake of 2020, the realities of inflation paired with stagnant wages for many workers may fuel a renewed union push. SVMA’s unionizing staff, as well as a Cultural Workers United union representative, expressed this desire in a call last Thursday to discuss the particulars of their decision to unionize. 

“The museum structure isn’t working,” said employee and organizer Amelia Martinez. “Even before 2020, but especially in 2020 when the pandemic hit, the inequities within the museum field were really highlighted. It’s been known, but it’s particularly disturbing coming from the museum field [which] professes all these great qualities of diversity, equity and inclusion. So it isn’t working. We need a system that implements codified policy and procedure. At the moment, we feel very at the whim of management—what we do, how we do it, when we do it.” 

“When we look at the museum,” said employee and organizer Kathy McHoes, “we see a rickety structure that’s been cobbled together over decades through people patchworking policies and procedures. And it’s all caught up to us at this moment. Now that we’re talking and comparing experiences and finding that we all have wildly different interactions with the exact same people, doing almost the exact same job, and that doesn’t make sense. Through talking to each other, we were able to identify the gaps and ways that we can collaborate and start to work together cross-departmentally and across skill sets. The other thing we found out while talking amongst each other is that no matter what efforts have been made to create change over time, change has not happened. It’s not been enough, and that’s been the takeaway from many people we’ve talked to who have volunteered with the museum, worked with the museum or worked alongside the museum in the past several decades. So it’s not one director or one season of management—this issue has gone on over time.” 

“The truth is,” said Ashley Mates, SVMA’s union representative, “that when workers have a say in how the work gets done, it gets done better. When workers have a say in what their pay benefits and working conditions are, things improve, because there’s a sense of agency and meaningful connection with the work they’re doing and the organization they’re doing it for. More importantly, it creates a democracy in the workplace. And I think that’s why people are afraid of unions—democracy is missing and you don’t always get your desired outcome. But a high-functioning democracy does work.”

It’s understandable that workers would be interested in unionizing. After all, the workplace is where people spend the majority of their waking hours, for a significant portion of their lives. 

The week is only 168 hours long, and roughly half of those hours are spent sleeping. Of the remaining 84, just slightly under half is devoted to work—assuming workers don’t work overtime.  To feel that the place where one spends at least half of one’s life doesn’t weigh or value one’s perspective is not conducive to either a high company morale or maximized productivity.  

“Working 40-60 hours a week is a significant amount of time to give to somebody without having a sense of control over what that time looks like,” said Mates. “And you really wouldn’t do that with any other part of your life, would you?” 

Essentially, when the union is put into place at SVMA, they and the museum’s directorial staff and board will hold equal authority, allowing for maximum employee opportunity when negotiating salary, health benefits, etc.

As it stands, however, it doesn’t seem that SVMA is willing to voluntarily meet the employee’s union. 

On April 6, a group of 13 people, including representatives of North Bay Jobs for Justice, Teamsters, North Bay Organizing Project, and the North Bay Labor Council came together to politely and earnestly communicate their desire for SVMA to voluntarily recognize the union. Before visiting the museum, the group formally requested a meeting with museum director Linda Keaton. She seems to have ignored the request. 

According to staff members who witnessed the exchange, Keaton initially requested that the visitor’s services associate attending the museum tell the group she was not in the office, although she was. She later came down to speak to the crowd, telling them she was not available to meet. 

In the staff’s latest weekly meeting, there was no discussion of the plan to unionize, though this may not be a tactic so much as a legal decision on the part of the museum directorial staff. 

“It’s illegal for management to ask about union activity,” said Mates. “Usually, especially in new places, they’re told not to discuss it at all. It gets easier as the relationship changes.” 

Between those eligible to join the union movement—including seasonal, hourly, salaried and part time staff, the SVMA union holds a super majority—more than the 30% required to establish a union. This means that they can ask for voluntary recognition by their organization. If the museum declines to voluntarily recognize the union, employees can file for an election, with the hope that management will remain neutral throughout that process.

At the time this article is set to be published, the deadline of April 8 for SVMA to voluntarily recognize the union has passed. 

On April 11, Keaton and the SVMA board released a statement formally announcing their decision not to recognize the union. 

“If our employees choose union representation following an NLRB election, SVMA will respect that decision. Plans to petition for an election will proceed. The goal is to provide a sense of equity and stability to the museum’s employment structure, and the hope is that the process will be an easeful one,” the announcement states.  

Despite managements’ announcement, the SVMA union is committed to moving forward and is filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board this week. Union representative Ashley Mates hopes that Keaton and SVMA will change their stance and choose to voluntarily recognize the union in a show of solidarity with the desires of the museum’s staff.


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