Why We Need Unions at Art Museums

I have fond memories of my earliest days as a museum guard, when I first experienced being in a labor union. Danny Meagher, our union president at Harvard Art Museums, was a character. An ardent Civil War buff, he dressed the part and must have appeared as something of an apparition tromping the hallowed grounds of Harvard Yard in his Prussian blue Union coat and forage cap. Sitting across buttoned-up university lawyers during contract negotiations, Meagher said things like, “There’ll be blood in the streets!” without a trace of irony.

When I started work as a museum guard at Harvard Art Museums in 2001, the union there was in the midst of a months-long contract negotiation, the second of its kind since it formed in the 1990s. Meagher was, of course, at the forefront of the effort. The Harvard University Safety, Parking, and Museum Guard Union (HUSPMGU, or “Husp-Mu-Goo” as Meagher liked to call it) was the smallest but scrappiest union on campus, and was bargaining for, among other things, higher pay. The left-leaning student body often stood in solidarity with us during negotiations, both in print in the Harvard Crimson and on the ground with signs in Harvard Yard. My starting rate there was just a few bucks above minimum wage. This was the first, and so far, only time I was in a union and didn’t think much of it one way or the other — until the end of my first year when the contract was finalized. A fellow guard who attended the union meeting told me he “almost wept” upon hearing the news that the university agreed to bump up our pay a few more dollars. What’s more, we would receive a retroactive pay differential dating back to when negotiations began. Though I’m certain a large portion of them went to food and drinks at Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square, our next paychecks were huge! We were victorious.

Danny Meagher at Harvard Art Museum in 2001 (photo by the author)

This is not to suggest that better pay is the only reason to support labor unions. For one, a union would end “at-will” employment, the default employee contract practiced in most United States municipalities wherein, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, “An employee may be hired or fired for almost any reason — whether fair or not — or for no reason at all.” Secondly, though many workers have some form of a benefits package, it can most likely be improved and updated by having gaps filled or discretionary terms formalized. Last, but not least: job protection. All too often, when incidents occur between supervisors and their subordinates, management and human resources simply side with the supervisor. Union representation during such proceedings would greatly enhance a worker’s ability to argue their position and defend their job. In fact, I know from personal experience that having someone from the union present — someone who was on my side — changes the whole dynamic of the situation. Meagher got me out of a jam more than once.

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Today I work at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where several months, ago workers began to form a union. We’re still in the early stages and plan to have an election this spring. The BMA Union comes a few months after a similar campaign began at the Walters Art Museum, the second-largest art museum in Baltimore. Both initiatives developed during the pandemic and are part of a larger trend of unionization of art museums and other cultural institutions across the country. I have worked at several art museums since Harvard (one in Boston, two in Baltimore), none of which were unionized. And though I had positive experiences at each, I felt my job was most secure within a union. This is why I fully support the formation of the BMA Union.

Baltimore Museum of Art workers gather outside of the museum to show their solidarity (image courtesy the BMA Union)

Unions, traditionally associated with more manual types of labor like manufacturing or mining, are absolutely necessary for art museums. As guards, we are responsible for protecting history’s greatest treasures from damage or theft. While it may seem like a fairly basic job most days, a range of situations can arise at any time, and it’s the museum guard’s job to spring to action as needed. But it’s not just the guards who would benefit from a union; Many other museum staff are paid below market standards and are overworked. As such, the BMA Union is trying to avoid the separation of security from other departments, which was the case at Harvard Art Museums.

On my last day there, Meagher had me photograph him standing next to various works of art as we roamed the galleries of Harvard Art Museums together one last time. I had to keep from laughing each time I went to take a shot since he looked so serious. When I caught up with him over the phone recently, I was glad to hear he’s doing well, enjoying retirement with his wife and their “strange dog and cat” while he teaches himself harp and works on a second book of poetry, written in English and Gaelic. I see now that he was so serious posing for those photos years ago because he took his job as a guard and as a union president seriously. “You live better when you work in a union,” he told me over the phone. “Especially when you work in an art museum, because you work for elitists.”

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