The steps of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) were occupied by hundreds of people on Mar. 30 blaming the administration for the slow pace of contract negotiations.
The protesters shouted, “What do we want?” “A Fair Contract.” “When do we want it?” “Now.” as they picketed the sidewalk in a circle.
Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU), the demonstration was intended as a wake-up call for the administration of the museum and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
“The truth is they (management) want to stonewall us. They don’t respect us and still think they hold all the power,” said bargaining committee member Briana Shucart.
Formed in 2021, AICWU is a union of museum and school staff and non-tenure-track faculty members of the school. Last year, both the staff and the non-tenure-track faculty overwhelmingly voted to join their union with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Although the union members have been working for a year to improve the working conditions, they say that their efforts have been stalled by the management. “Management wants to be seen as progressive but in bargaining, they ignored our proposals rather than engage with them,” Shucart said in her speech.
Shucart offered this example: The union members made their proposal for advance notice about layoffs on May 30. Shucart said that the administration took almost ten months to respond to their proposal and offered advance notice of only “a handful of days.”
In 2020, during the financial crisis brought on by COVID-19, the school eliminated 65 full-time staff positions, and 12 part-time staff positions. Similarly, AIC laid off eight percent of its staff. Most of these layoffs happened without prior notice or transparency, which employees condemned.
“We even asked for a small office on campus to meet with the members and store the materials. And management refused to respond to that as well,” she added.
“In the last few months, they have been refusing to agree to the basic language that can be found in every union contract. Not just here in Chicago, but across the United States,” said museum bargaining committee member Sheila Majumdar.
In her speech, Majumdar stated that the union is still fighting for the administration to recognize the right of every eligible co-worker to be allowed in the union.
“This is supposed to be the easy stuff. Now we are moving to economics. This is part of bargaining which deals with our wages, health, dental, and vision insurance, and other benefits. The easy part is over. We are ready for what comes next,” Majumdar, an editor in the publishing department of AIC, yelled to the crowd.
Members of the bargaining committee described the negotiation process as “frustrating” and “humiliating” because of the patronizing language used by the administration.
Myia Brown, a bargaining committee member, told the crowd that the management is represented by a lawyer who doesn’t even understand what the union members do.
“Whenever he (the lawyer) would give the example of our work, it was either the curator or a custodian. So let’s help him a little. We are the advisors. We are the coordinators. We are guest services. We are the faculty. And we are the students,” Brown told the audience. “The lawyer can read up on what the majority of the staff actually do. And then we can bargain.”
“We are doing this because of all of you,” said Brown, who works as the Assistant Director of Career & Professional Experience at SAIC. “This is to help to set a tone for other cultural institutions in Chicago and across the country. We are doing our part for our current workers and those who come after us. And we are doing this because we believe and we know there’s a better on the other side of this contract,” she added.
The Art Institute issued a statement claiming that its representatives are bargaining in good faith.
“We remain committed to reaching an agreement that best meets the needs of our staff while allowing us to continue to provide a world-class education at the School and a world-class cultural experience at the museum,” the statement reads.
“If management tries to delay anymore, they are going to find out that we are stronger than ever,” Majumdar said. “We will win a fair contract.”
Correction: In 2020, during the financial crisis brought on by COVID-19, the school eliminated 65 full-time staff positions, and 12 part-time staff positions. The previous version of this article had erroneously stated that 65 full-time faculty and 12-part time faculty were laid-off.