Museum workers hop on the union train


About 65 internal security guards in the wealthy Seattle Art Museum (SAM) just became the SAM VSO Union! VSO stands for Visitor Service Officers. The year-long organizing drive was victorious with 34-to-4 votes in the National Labor Relations Board election. The election covered workers at both the downtown Seattle Art Museum and the Asian Art Museum.

Seattle Art Museum visitor-services employees who are leading union organizing at the institution. Credit: Amber Cortes/Hyperallergic

Running alongside the Starbucks Workers United and the Amazon Labor Union, museum workers are on the offensive nationally to organize and unionize.

The SAM made pay cuts, including pension pay cuts, along with many layoffs in the pandemic summer of 2020. The workers saw the need to organize when the bosses chose to restore the pension pay cuts in 2021 for the higher earning staff, but not for frontline workers. The need for workers having a say in workplace safety became clear when patrons sometimes refused to wear masks.

SAM has fought the union all year, but the workers prevailed. SAM used staff emails to attack the organizers’ characters. They fired leading organizer, Aselya Keyes, in a blatant union-busting move. Keyes, a five-year veteran at SAM, is the only person of color among the leading organizers. She wants her job back and has filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the NLRB. She is still organizing from the sidelines and going to union meetings.

The SAM VSO Union wants a voice in workplace decisions about scheduling and staffing, a seniority pay system, higher wages to offset Seattle’s cost of living and reinstatement of payments to their retirement plans. SAM is a ruling-class institution, rich enough to meet workers’ demands. This museum’s wealthy benefactors have their names chiseled into the museum’s granite walls.

The VSO’s saga is part of a national movement among museum workers.

The SAM VSO Union follows the success of Seattle’s Frye Museum workers in 2019. Recently workers have organized unions at the New Museum, the Guggenheim and Whitney museums in New York City; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon; and more.

Museum workers are exploding the myth that since their jobs benefit the public, they should not get paid. But organizer Aselya Keyes says, “I feel like frontline staff are always the least paid, the most disregarded; but at the same time, they are the ones keeping the museum alive.”

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