Saturday, November 21, 2009

Actively Organizing: A Lesson From Canada

Picketers from around the world in front of the Museum of Civilization and War. [via]

Museos all know the pitfalls of passive collecting: while you may end up with some great stuff, your collections will be uneven and incomplete. You might end up with all of one thing and none of another. If you are not continuously searching out the objects which will best further your museum's mission, you might fall into a collecting rut.

It seems that this blog has fallen into that rut. If I had been actively seeking news related to museum workers, wages, unions, and the employment situation, I might have been able to bring this story to your attention much sooner. Instead, I've been passively collecting and sharing links that I've stumbled upon. I've brought you a lot of one thing (links related to the general employment situation for young workers in nonprofits, for example) and none of another (stories about actual museos uniting).

In short, I'm feeling duly chastened. This is a huge story.

Workers at the Museum of Civilization and War in Ottawa Canada have been on strike for just over two months. You can follow news about the strike either on their union website (the museum is a national one, so workers can join the public servants' union) or on their Twitter, @MuseumWorkers. Despite their status as public servants, these workers have no job security, temporary contracts, and severely limited opportunities for advancement. They make significantly less than museum workers at other institutions, and have no protections against their jobs being contracted out. More specifics can be found here.

I don't know much about how these things work in Canada, but currently in the U.S. museos with union protection are either public servants or they work for an institution that has organized under the banner of a large labor union. Museum Educators at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum are trying to unionize under UAW Local 2110, a branch of the United Auto Workers. Museos at the New York Historical Society, Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the MoMA can also join this union. I don't want to dilute this entry with an additional topic, but you might notice that even if you can join a union (which most museos cannot, since we are not all public servants or the part of a large and unified workforce at a prominent institution), you are still liable to run up against unfair employment practices: you might still get unfair wages, you might still be denied benefits or job security. Unionization is not a cure-all, but it helps. We actually hear about injustices at these museums because there is a union to publicize them. Unions do not only provide the right to bargain, but they also provide a voice outside of the institution. Other museos do not have that voice.

And what a voice it is. The strike at the Museum of Civilization and War shows us a wonderful example of what collective action in a museum should look like. There is an incredible amount of solidarity on the picket lines, with workers from other museums, other industries, and other countries showing up to express support. Museum programming has continued, with the striking workers arranging an outdoor childrens' museum and a Halloween fair. They have chosen to demonstrate what a valuable service they provide not by denying the public that service, but by continuing to provide it.

So what can you do to help aid the cause of workplace fairness in museums?
  • For starters, tell a friend. (Thank you Dan Cull, for blogging about this.)
  • If you really want to go all out you can head to Canada and join the picket line like the admirable men and women from Pittsburgh and Germany who are pictured above.
  • If you, like me, find yourself with less money and flex time than that, you can send an email to museum CEO Victor Rabinovitch. Let him know that you believe in equality of opportunity, fair salaries, and a healthy measure of employment protection.
  • Perhaps most importantly, you can let the workers at the Museum of Civilization and War know that you stand with them. I for one think that they provide an excellent example of how to organize with grace and class, and I hope their demands are met in full.
I'll be following this story closely from now on.


  1. Thank you for posted about our strike Kirsten. It's nice to know that the word is getting out and more action can be taken against the employer.

    Just to clarify some things, we are public servants as the institution is a Crown Corporation. Also, there isn't an option to join the union. The position you compete for is either unionized or non-unionized. Out of about 500 positions about 420 are unionized.

    To put in some context, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum are the two largest national museums in Canada. Therefore we receive the largest pot of government money. The CEO is the most paid of all National museums (there are 17). The employees? The worse paid, some positions by 30%.

    You'd think that salary parity would be our biggest issue, but it is not. It's the protection of our jobs. The corporation has been privatizing more and more positions. Cafeteria, boutique, parking, facilities maintenance... But now they are looking at contracting out the jobs that are core to the museum. Conservation, preparation, collections management, exhibition design... This is what we are fighting for, why we have been on the picket line for 64 days now. We believe that the care, presentation and interpretation of our national heritage should not be contracted out to the lowest bidder.

    And the treatment of term workers. They are given 6 months minus one day so that the corporation does not have to pay any form of benefits. Some people have been doing this for over 19 years. We want the employer to understand that this sort of practice is deplorable. We understand that in certain instances term workers are an important part of the work force to help us attain our goals. But to have someone on for 19 years in this fashion, obviously it is a position that is core to the museum.

    Again, thank you for bringing our story to the broader public.

  2. Hi Julie. Thanks for the clarifications! As I said, I have no idea how things work in Canada. You're right: the employment practices at your museum are deplorable. I wish you the best of luck in getting them changed, and thank you for sharing the details of your struggle.

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