Employees at the Art Institute of Chicago museum and school ratify their first union contract

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After more than a year of negotiations, unionised workers at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) have ratified their first contract. The new agreement gives the more than 500 union members salary increases of at least 12.25% and up to 16.25%, with lower-paid employees receiving larger pay bumps. It also immediately raises the required minimum wage to $17 an hour and includes provisions for career support and affordable health care.

The union, which is the first major museum union in Chicago, formed in January 2022 with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Workers were spurred to action following AIC’s and SAIC’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to dozens of layoffs and furloughs at both institutions and brought to the forefront longstanding concerns over pay equity and job security. In June 2020, nearly 30% of the museum’s staff signed a letter demanding increased transparency and accountability from the institution’s leadership, setting into motion efforts that led to the creation of Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU) with SAIC employees. In May 2022, the group was joined by non-tenure-track faculty at SAIC, who in their own letter cited “intolerable” working conditions that devalue their labour.

“Now they’ve secured a landmark union contract that raises pay, creates new career opportunities, keeps health care affordable and protects workers’ rights on the job,” Roberta Lynch, AFSCME Council 31’s executive director, said in a statement. “By coming together, AIC and SAIC employees are improving their working lives and blazing the trail for other cultural workers in Chicago and beyond.”

Under the four-year contract, health-insurance premiums will remain unchanged in the next fiscal year and the wage floor will increase to $18 an hour in 2025. (Staff will continue to be eligible for additional merit raises.) The deal also requires that job openings be posted internally and guarantees interviews to qualified in-house applicants. In addition, it will create a joint labour/management committee to improve communication and address ongoing issues. In the event of a layoff, management will have to give the union and affected employees three weeks’ advance notice.

“The Art Institute deeply values its employees and is happy to have reached a contract agreement that meets the needs of our staff and allows us to continue providing a world-class education and cultural experience,” Alexandra Holt, the museum’s executive vice president for finance and administration, said in a statement. “This process has been an important step in building the future of our institution and we are so pleased to all move forward together.”

There has been a national wave of unionisation at museums and universities in recent years, spurred by organising efforts at institutions including the New Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to empower workers in an increasingly precarious economy. In Chicago, staff at the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and Newberry Library have all voted to unionise with AFSCME Council 31 within the past year.

AICWU’s first contract comes a week after staff at the Guggenheim signed their first union contract, and five months after workers at the Whitney Museum ratified theirs. Before reaching a tentative agreement with school and museum management, AICWU had set up a hardship fund to support its members in the event of a strike. Around 600 of its non-tenure-track SAIC faculty members are currently in the process of bargaining for their own contract.

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