Some workers at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh are trying to form a union. But the president and CEO of Pittsburgh’s largest and most iconic cultural institution is asking them to reconsider.
On June 29 -- the same day the system’s four museums reopened after a pandemic-imposed shutdown -- organizers announced plans to have some 500 employees of the four museums vote on whether to join the United Steelworkers. Doing so, union organizers say, will deliver better pay and benefits, and a greater voice in decision-making.
“We are proud future members of the United Steelworkers union, whose members built the fortune of our museum’s founder,” said a statement from the group calling itself United Museum Workers. Industrial titan Andrew Carnegie founded the museum in 1896.
“Along with better pay and benefits, the United Museum Workers are demanding inclusivity in hiring, accessibility, increased transparency and a voice in the museum's decision-making process,” the statement asserted.
But in a letter emailed Tuesday and supplied to WESA, president and CEO Steven Knapp cautioned employees – including everyone from scientists to gift-shop clerks – that unionization might not be appropriate in a museum setting.
The two-page letter cites “risks of unionization to the kind of work we currently have the freedom to do." Knapp warned unionizing could mean more restrictive job descriptions and less flexible scheduling, and that union work rules might stifle workers’ “flexibility, creativity and individuality."
In his letter, Knapp -- who started work at the museum in February -- asked that before proceeding with unionization efforts, workers "give us just a bit more time ... for you to get to know me and for me to get to know you and demonstrate what I know we can do together."
The Carnegie Museums include the museums of art and natural history, in Oakland, The Andy Warhol Museum, and the Carnegie Science Center, both on the North Side. But employees said that the institution's prestige doesn’t translate into ideal working conditions.
“We are underpaid compared to other museums in the Atlantic region,” said Jenise Brown, an educator at the Museum of Natural History who is on the union organizing committee. “And a large number of our staff including myself are actually part-time workers and receive little or no benefits.”
When the museums had to shut down, in March, because of the coronavirus pandemic, it furloughed about two-thirds of its workers, most of whom were part-time.
Knapp acknowledged that some Carnegie Museums staffers are already unionized, including custodians and physical-plant employees.
A handful of museums around the country, including New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, have unionized workforces, and some observers have noted a recent trend in that direction.
Knapp’s letter cited concerns that unionization might lead to more work assignments and promotions based on seniority, rather than factors like merit. He noted that the museum is in the midst of a search for the next director of the Natural History museum, that the search committee includes Carnegie Museums staff, and that candidates for the job are sought “who would work collaboratively and transparently with staff in redefining the traditional idea of a natural history museum.”
“I do have some concerns,” he added, “that work rules emerging from collective bargaining might prevent us from inviting staff members to take on shared governance roles that fall outside their narrowly defined job descriptions.”
But Brown said such concerns were speculative, given that organizers are still gathering from employees the signature cards that must be submitted to the National Labor Relations Board before a unionization vote can occur.
She said that unionization could lead to better internal communication at the museums.
“There is not always clear communication from the tippy-top down, and we’d love some more transparency coming down from upper-level management to middle-level management and the workers,” she said.
In response to Knapp's concerns about "flexibility," Brown added that flexible hours are among the few benefits available to part-time workers, and that employees would likely seek to retain them in a collective bargaining agreement.
Brown said the letter only strengthened her resolve to unionize.
"It reminds me of why we’re doing this in the first place: because we want that clear communication, and we want a seat at the table for some of the decision making."
Carnegie Museums officials declined further comment.
Via email, USW spokesperson Chelsey Engel noted that Knapp’s letter takes time to acknowledge the historic value of unions to the nation’s economy and in securing the rights of workers.
“We are certainly glad that Steve shares a lot of the same beliefs and values regarding unions, and we look forward to talking these and other issues out together at the bargaining table,” she wrote.
The United Museum Workers has not provided a timeline for a possible vote.