About 300 workers at the Field Museum will join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 following a ballot count in their union election Thursday.
The vote makes the natural history museum the second major Chicago museum, after the Art Institute, to unionize with AFSCME Council 31, whose ranks have swelled with cultural workers over the last year.
Field Museum staff, which include collections assistants and technicians, visitor service representatives, exhibition preparers, research scientists and facilities staff, filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board in December after going public with their campaign last fall. Museum leadership declined to voluntarily recognize their union, leading to an election, said Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31.
According to the union, 175 museum employees voted in favor of unionization, with 66 voting against. A dozen challenged ballots were not counted. In a news release, the union accused museum management of running an “aggressive and costly anti-union campaign.”
In a statement, the Field Museum did not respond directly to the allegation but said it would bargain in good faith with the union.
“While the election process produced strong feelings and contrasting views, we are once again unified in serving our visitors, our community, and our world,” the museum said. “Our management team is ready to begin good-faith bargaining over an initial contract with AFSCME. We look forward to reaching an agreement.”
Kalina Jakymec, a collections assistant and a member of the union’s organizing committee, said wages were a key concern among museum staff.
“People are concerned with making rent, with having a functioning car, with being able to afford a commute,” said Jakymec, who works organizing, preserving and preparing zoological specimens for research.
Lindall said lower-paid employees at the Field Museum unit earn between $16.50 and $18 an hour and that most members of the new bargaining unit make less than $44,000 a year.
“Museum staff hasn’t ever had a voice or the ability to advocate for ourselves,” said Jakymec, who has worked at the museum for a decade. She pointed to high turnover among staff and wage disparities as additional areas of concern among employees.
“I really wanted to join together with my colleagues,” she said, “so that there was power behind our voice, so that people had to listen to us, so that we had a seat at the table.”
When they launched the union drive, Field Museum workers called attention to what they described as low wages, limited opportunities for advancement, high turnover and the museum’s reliance on temporary grant-funded workers in place of permanent employees.
“Our skills and our experience are invaluable to the success of the museum. It’s time for our voices to be heard and respected. Only by forming a union will we win the respect and dignity at work that we deserve,” museum staff wrote in an open letter last fall.
Chicago’s first major museum union was formed at the Art Institute, where staff unionized in January 2022. Field Museum employees have said they were inspired by the art museum staff’s campaign. Last year, nontenure track faculty and staff at the Art Institute’s affiliated school also unionized with AFSCME Council 31. So did workers at the Newberry Library, an independent research library on the Near North Side.
Lindall declined to say whether the union had plans to organize with workers at other Museum Campus institutions.