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News in Brief: January 16, 2022

This week’s news from the working world.

By News

A wide-mouthed character tilts its head back and gobbles up a variety of news briefs and debris. Illustration by Jade Sheng.

Illustration by Jade Sheng.

You get a union! And you get a union!

This past week, on January 11 and 12, workers at the Art Institute of Chicago and the School for the Art Institute voted in support of forming a union. Though the workers won’t enter negotiations with administration until an undetermined future date, we know one thing: This is a big deal. In light of this news, we’re opting for depth over breadth in this week’s news in brief. 

How it Started

The effort to unionize began sometime in late-2019/early-2020. Workers at the Art Institute of Chicago reached out to the American Federation of State, Count, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME, Council 31) to inquire about forming a union. Though quiet organizing began before the pandemic, closures and layoffs during the Spring and Summer of 2020 exposed deficiencies in the institutions, and generated a new sense of urgency. 

“The layoffs were incredibly painful, and it was the most vulnerable staff that were laid off,” Kait Roelofs, an administrative director at SAIC says. “In institutions that are already struggling with issues of equity, everybody needs to be protected.”

On August 3, 2021, workers and organizers went public with their intention to unionize under the name Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU). On August 10, workers at the School publicly announced their intention to form a separate bargaining unit under the same AICWU banner. This publication reported on AICWU’s formation and subsequent rallies.

How it’s Going

The union includes roughly 400 staff members at the Art Institute and the School, about 200 per institution. On December 8, all eligible staff members (those who would be represented by the union) were mailed ballots and instructed to return them by Jan. 10. The National Labor Review Board counted ballots, and on Jan. 11 and 12 announced the official recognition of a union in both institutions. 

At the Art Institute, the count was 142 yes, 44 no, and 20 ballots not counted due to management challenges. At the School, 115 voted yes, 48 voted no, and 44 ballots were challenged. Challenged ballots are those cast by staff whom the administration does not believe should be represented by the union. 

Why it matters

AICWU joins a wave of unionization efforts at major cultural institutions across the nation over the past two years, the vast majority of which have voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing. There are many issues that the unions formed will address, with the overarching sentiment that art workers are being asked to do more for less — while administration and management officials continue to make high six-figure annual salaries. 

Issues of pay transparency, gender and race equity, hazard pay, and proper accommodations have been raised by the union. In forming the union, workers hope to gain the leverage they need for management to address their concerns, as opposed to dealing with issues on an individual basis — often after the damage has been done.

For example, last year SAIC released a pay equity study in which they identified and corrected pay disparities present amongst workers of color. As one SAIC organizer pointed out, this was done in response to the issue being repeatedly, publicly raised; with a union, pay transparency would be built into the contract, providing protection against such issues.

What’s Next

Now that AICWU has won recognition, the two bargaining units (one at the art museum, and one at the school) will begin electing their bargaining teams and collecting worker input for their future contract. Information on listening sessions and surveys, as well as updates on union activity, can be found at www.aicwu.org

As far as the broader message goes, organizers want workers at other cultural institutions to look to AICWU as an example of what is possible. “I know I’m definitely ready and willing to talk to folks at other museums and you know, get more campaigns off the ground,” Erica Warren, associate curator of textiles at AIC says. “We know that we benefited so much from that kind of grassroots support.”                                                                                                     

What else is happening in the working world?

Amazon gives employees more power to organize

In a historically far-reaching settlement, Amazon — the nation’s second-largest employer, behind Walmart — agreed to email past and current warehouse workers with notifications of their rights, and give them greater flexibility to organize in its buildings, according to the New York Times. 

The agreement stems from six cases of warehouse workers in Chicago and Staten Island facilities. Workers there alleged that Amazon prevented them from being in areas like break rooms and parking lots until within 15 minutes before or after their shifts, interfering with valuable organizing space and time. 

Organizers hope that this settlement will send a message to other large employers that the National Labor Relations Board is serious about enforcing workers’ rights to organize. 

Wabash Starbucks location files petition for union certification

Last month, mid-peppermint mocha season, workers at a Buffalo, NY Starbucks voted to form a union. Just last week, the fifteen hourly workers at Chicago’s 155 N. Wabash Starbucks filed their petition for union certification. It’s the first Starbucks in the Midwest to file, and it joins the efforts of several other Chicago locations (undisclosed at the time of writing), two in Boston, one in Arizona, and one in Colorado that are all pushing for unions. Among the concerns that workers hope a union will address are better wages, a better distribution of labor, and security.

Pete DeMay, an organizing director at Workers United, is hopeful that the efforts at these Starbucks’ locations provide a model for restaurant workers — an industry that has historically had trouble with labor organizing, but, as the Great Resignation has shown, is primed for an update. 

The National Labor Review Board will determine an election date next week — it’s likely to happen in the next six to eight weeks. 

Chicago Teachers Union returns to work, but students are dissatisfied

About a decade ago, a progressive caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union rewrote what union negotiations could look like — rather than bargaining for “bread and butter union issues like pay and health care benefits,” Sidney Madden of City Cast Chicago reports, they were “bargaining for smaller class sizes and assistance for unhoused students.”

Since then, CTU has led three successful strikes and walk-outs over issues like teacher evaluations, school closures, salary increases, and benefits for support staff. Last year, CPS and CTU narrowly avoided a strike by agreeing on COVID-19 vaccination requirements and pandemic-related metrics for closures. 

When CTU called a strike at the start of 2022 over COVID-19 metrics and precautions, classes were canceled for a week. On January 10, CTU and CPS reached a reopening agreement, but students were dissatisfied with the concessions made. On Jan. 14, the Chicago Public Schools Radical Youth Alliance (Chi-Rads) led a walk-out that culminated in about 500 CPS students gathered outside of the CPS headquarters. 

“Students have demanded and teachers have demanded for the safety of people in our school communities. We know this has not happened,” Catlyn Savado, 14, a freshman at Percy L. Julian High School on the far South Side, announced to the crowd. “They increase the police budget, but we don’t have a mental health department at our schools. CTU has been fighting for nurses, social workers and psychologists in every single Chicago public school and even within a pandemic, that isn’t happening. That ain’t right” (reported via The Chicago Tribune).

Parker Yamasaki (MANAJ 2023) is the managing editor at F Newsmagazine. She is constantly looking for a sunnier place to sit.

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