Throughout the month of January workers at the Denver Art Museum have inched their way toward forming a union to fight for higher wages, more transparency and improved safety procedures.
On Jan. 11, at an all-staff meeting, 33 union representatives distributed a letter stating their intent to form the Denver Art Museum Workers United. The move left management with two choices: Voluntarily recognize the union and head straight into negotiations, or reject the union and send the decision to a vote officiated by the National Labor Relations Board. Management at the Denver Art Museum chose the latter. So late last week, workers officially filed for an election with the NLRB.
The election will take place March 6 and 7. Museum management wrote in an email to The Colorado Sun that they “support the idea of an election because doing so enables all eligible employees to have their voices heard and to participate in the unionization decision-making process.” Union organizers think it’s just a way to delay the inevitable.
Who is in the union?
Workers want to form a wall-to-wall union, meaning it represents employees across departments. This is important for solidarity in workplaces like museums, which typically have a wide range of job descriptions, education requirements and even work environments.
Union positions are still being determined, but a spokesperson from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which would represent the workers, estimated that around 250 people would be eligible. According to the NLRB case, workers hope to include 62 full-time, part-time and temporary positions throughout the museum.
As of 2022, the museum employed 513 people and relied on over 300 volunteers.
Certain supervisory roles, such as the museum shop lead and the group services lead, will be permitted to vote in the election, but it has not yet been determined whether they will be eligible for union membership. Managers, guards, confidential employees and “supervisors” as defined by the NLRB are excluded from union representation and voting.
The reasons for organizing are to “earn living wages, improve transparency from management and create better safety procedures,” according to the union’s Jan. 11 press release. Union demands are often left purposely vague, since any policy changes will be hashed out through a series of negotiations once the union is formed. Besides increasing pay, other issues that have been raised are a lack of parking for employees, inadequate benefits for bereavement, and a lack of clarity about job responsibilities.
“For me, definitely, my biggest concern is pay,” said Kit Bernal, a curatorial assistant. In 2022, the largest portion of worker-led stoppages cited pay as their top demand, and according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2023, nonunion workers made 86% of what union members made.
“I love the work I do. I feel very proud to do the work I do,” Bernal said. “But even being higher paid than many of my visitor-facing colleagues, it’s tough. And I am lucky. I live with my partner, we’re a two-income household. I don’t know how people are doing it if they don’t have safety nets of some type.”
When Bernal was hired for the curatorial position in August 2022, her hourly wage equaled just a bit more than $46,000 before taxes, barely squeaking past the Economic Policy Institute’s estimated livable wage for metro Denver at $45,554. “It’s kind of this open secret that people leave not because they don’t like their work, but because they simply are not paid enough to continue doing it,” she said.
Nonprofits and cultural institutions have a reputation for taking advantage of the fact that their workers love the work they do, according to Daphna Thier, program coordinator for the national Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.
“There’s this idea that’s like ‘Oh, lucky you, you’re doing something you’re passionate about,’” she said. “And in exchange for that, people are expected to work long hours for very low pay, really, for what they’re actually doing.”
The committee isn’t a union, but fields hundreds of calls from workers who want to organize their workplaces. It started as a Google Form in March 2020 by people working on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, who were receiving panicked, pandemic-era workplace questions: How to get PPE, how to ask for hazard pay, how to persuade a boss to let them work remotely. Sanders dropped out of the presidential race a month later, but the staffers who started the Google Form continued organizing and connecting people.
If there’s one takeaway from Thier’s work, it’s how important those connections are — within and outside of the workplace.
“(Cultural workers) are seeing more examples of people organizing. So it’s sort of like a snowball effect where people are like, ‘Oh, so I could actually change this?’” Thier said. “I mean, yeah, you could try to find a new job, but the reality of a lot of jobs today is that they suck. And so one thing you can do is talk to your coworkers.”
In Colorado, workers at Opera Colorado and Meow Wolf have successfully pushed for unionization in their workplaces, and workers at two Colorado Alamo Drafthouse locations filed for union representation in January, but have not scheduled an election yet.
Still, Colorado is not a particularly union-heavy state. Last year, union members made up about 6.9% of the state’s workforce, below the national average of 10%. Nationally, however, there are a growing number of models among other cultural institutions.
Over the past three years, workers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles have filed for and won union representation. “Every time there’s a big union drive that goes public, every time there’s a big strike, we see a wave of people showing up at our door,” Thier said. Which leads us back to the Denver Art Museum.
Trudy Lovato is a gallery host who reached out to the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee in June last year, after about a month-and-a-half on the job. She started working part-time for the museum after a career as a substitute teacher, and noticed that some of her coworkers were struggling financially — to the point where some couldn’t even afford lunch.
“Someone started a food program to keep non-perishables in the office for people who quote-unquote forgot their lunch,” Lovato said. Things like ramen and oatmeal. “I noticed that a lot of my coworkers, that’s all they were eating, and they were eating it every day. I also noticed coworkers gluing or taping their shoes together because they couldn’t afford to buy new shoes, which is a problem because we get 20,000 to 30,000 steps a day in my position, we’re on our feet walking all day long. So little things like that tipped me off.”
Lovato started asking around, taking note of how many people worked multiple jobs or lived with roommates. She’d never organized a workplace or been involved in union activity, but after reading an article about the Philadelphia Art Museum that mentioned the organizing committee, she reached out. That’s when she found out there was already an effort underway at the Denver Art Museum.
Unions all around
If the union succeeds, workers would join 55 museums and 129 cultural institutions, including libraries and historical societies, that are represented by AFSCME.
Bernal, who works from the museum’s administrative offices, finds herself explaining why a “cushy” computer job would need union representation.
“Some of the initial reactions at the museum, that are now changing, were this idea that our job is fine. Like, it’s fine enough. We are not in the most horrific working conditions. We’re not working 12-hour days on a factory floor,” she said.
“I think being able to reframe it for people as like, it’s not about the fact that you have it better than some other people. It’s about the fact that you are not being treated the way you deserve. And that we need to be able to have input in our working conditions.”
Thier said the workers who reach out for help organizing are not limited to factory and service jobs. They get inquiries from every sector, with a growing number of workers in nonprofits, cultural and community centers, and even tech.
Tech workers don’t necessarily reach out about pay as much as the precariousness of their jobs. Uncertainty also breeds union activity, and with major tech companies like Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft laying off workers by the thousands, Thier gets more calls from tech workers than ever before.
But, of course, it’s also about pay.
“I think the truth is what we’ve really seen is a kind of decimation of what the living wage is. If you think about it, previous generations could buy a home in their thirties, whereas now your typical worker might work a tech job but still not be able to buy their own house,” she said. “So I do think it is about a living standard.”
Bernal said one of her favorite quotes to keep in mind when people question the need for a union is on a poster that the museum recently acquired:
even if it seems to you / that you never had so much / that is only the slogan of those / who still have much more than you
“We are all of the same workplace,” Bernal said. “We all deal with the same conditions, although maybe in slightly different ways. And we all deserve better.”
Type of Story: News
Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.