Seattle Art Museum (SAM) visiting service officers (VSOs) allege that the museum retaliated against them for trying to establish a union at their workplace.
The security workers claim that management disciplined them, including firing one of their core organizers, Aselya Keyes, on April 6. The museum denies the allegation, saying in an email to Real Change that SAM did not retaliate against any employees for their unionization efforts.
The workers started unionizing in July 2021 after the museum did not reinstate retirement benefits they lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a spokesperson from SAM, the museum canceled employer contributions to retirement plans for all employees in June 2020 and has not yet reinstated them.
Josh Davis, a VSO and one of the lead organizers of the union, said that the museum’s leadership reversed pay cuts that high level staff took, in contrast to the treatment of frontline staff.
“It felt like we’re definitely not thought of,” Davis said.
The SAM spokesperson said that over the course of 2020, top staff took a 15 percent pay cut, which was reversed in March 2021 after all other staff pay was restored.
SAM laid off or furloughed 76 employees in 2020, many of whom were rehired after the museum received $4.8 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans — a program created by the federal government to keep businesses and workers afloat in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
In January, 70 percent of the more than 60 VSOs who work for SAM signed union authorization cards to join IUPAT Local 116, triggering an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
However, security workers are not allowed to participate in a union election if it includes non-security workers, which IUPAT does. Thus, their union would have to be voluntarily recognized, which SAM refused to do.
In a Jan. 14 email from Human Resources (HR) Director Kathleen Maki to VSOs, Maki claimed that voluntary recognition could lead to a conflict of interest in which VSOs would side with fellow union members over the museum. If VSOs were members of IUPAT, they “would be placed in a difficult position where they want to support their union but also have a duty to protect SAM’s facilities and assets,” she wrote.
According to Davis, this is in contradiction with practices of most employers.
“In the Seattle area, it is the complete industry standard to voluntarily recognize security departments joining with mixed guard unions,” he said.
The workers withdrew their union petition and refiled as an independent union without the backing of a larger labor organization. They say this delayed their efforts by months.
Davis said that while they were able to raise $3,000 from community members to pay legal fees, they have now exhausted the funds. If they were part of a larger union, they would be able to r eceive legal support.
VSOs have filed two NLRB complaints alleging unfair labor practices by SAM.
Keyes said management tried to “assassinate” the character of union organizers, such as herself. On March 23, HR informed her in a meeting that she was on paid leave and being investigated without specifying what she was being investigated for. The HR person also told Keyes that she wasn’t allowed to discuss the meeting with her colleagues. The union’s lawyer told her that this request was illegal.
On March 28, Keyes was called back into a meeting with the HR representative and Jeff Draeger, the new chief operating officer of SAM. Keyes said the “men interrogated me for two hours on the 28th about my behavior and how my behavior could be perceived as being a bully or harassing people.”
Keyes said that the allegations against her by management weren’t substantive.
“They still didn’t really give me a whole lot, but they brought up a bunch of really minor incidents that had happened like months and months ago,” Keyes said.
One of these incidents included a time in mid-2021 in the break room, when Keyes put hot sauce in her tea and offered a coworker a sip.
“We were laughing about it,” Keyes said.
Management questioned her if she forced her colleague to drink the tea, which Keyes denied.
“It was nothing malicious,” Keyes said.
On April 6, Keyes was called back for a “two or three minutes” meeting in which she was told she was being terminated due to her behavior and breach of confidentiality.
In an email to Real Change, a museum spokesperson said, “SAM has not retaliated against any employee for seeking union representation … The individual was terminated based on the results of this investigation.”
Keyes and Davis contend that the underlying reason for the termination was due to Keyes’ effectiveness as an organizer. She was the main floor organizer during day shifts, helping collect signatures from her coworkers.
“If they can take me off the floor for some bogus reason, they know that they’re benefiting off of that, because I’m not at SAM and I’m not organizing,” Keyes said.
VSOs will begin voting on whether to unionize on May 10.
“We love this job. We love the people that we work with,” Davis said. “We’re just asking for a seat at the table so that the folks that continue to have this job for years and years will have an even better experience than we did.”
Read more of the May 11-17, 2022 issue.