Made in America: musing about unions and museums

Day 409

I don’t often complete an item in my “catalog of curiosity” by accident, having forgotten it was on my list. That’s largely because my list is designed to get me to try new things, including things I’ve been meaning to get to and things out of my comfort zone. But, twice recently, I attended meetings of the MBTA (Boston subway and bus system), not thinking about the blog but about a series of proposed cuts. At these meetings, an issue on the agenda directly related to the jobs -- and job security -- of a group of skilled workers. I was impressed with the number of people who turned out in union t-shirts and the number who spoke in the public comment portion of the meeting. It struck me that while I know a little about the role of unions in labor decisions and I’ve studied labor history a fair bit, I knew next to nothing about the role that unions play in an average union member’s life.

It got me thinking... I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard or read anyone suggest that museums forge relationships with labor unions a part of their community outreach. The only situation where I’ve seen a museum reaching out to a union has been when museums offer free admission or discounts for K-12 teachers; some museums accept a state teachers union card as an ID. I’m not the best person to speak on this subject, because I’ve never worked in a unionized field and I’ve been involved but not a manager of community partnerships in museums. Still, part of what a blog is for is exploring ideas and whetting readers’ appetites for more on the subject, and pointing them towards more authoritative sources when possible, so I hope to do that here.

It seems to me that museums could speak to audiences they currently don’t adequately reach if they develop relationships with unions, especially in fields where most jobs are blue-collar. Generally speaking, U.S. museum audiences skew towards having more years of academic education (4-year college, MA, PhD, JD, etc) than the general public, and that translates to fewer people with trade educations. About 50% of union membership is from blue-collar trades. Once I did a little digging, I learned that only about 10% of Americans are in a union, which is a historical low point. The thing that inspired me at the public transit meeting was not these union members’ percentage of the population, but their dedication to fighting for their cause and their families, evidence of being engaged community members. 

By connecting with unions, museums could invest in their communities and potentially reach new audiences. However, you want to be careful if the museum’s T-shirts are union made but its toilets aren’t union cleaned (for example). If a particular museum’s labor practices are not up to the standard that unions would expect and their employees aren't making enough to live on, an attempted partnership could be shallow or hypocritical. The other risk of a museum partnering with unions is that some segments of the population would see this as a highly political move. These are the people who see unions as far-left and disruptive; it’s likely that many don’t understand the full role of unions in shaping American life. The slogan and bumper sticker “The labor movement: the folks who brought you the weekend” is true. This segment also ignores the fact that union members span the political spectrum, and union households were more evenly split on the Trump vs. Clinton election than they have been in decades. However, the perception that partnering with unions would be political is something a museum would need to deal with. 

Postage stamps from the 1980s
Many museums understand that the best way to serve our communities is to ask people what they want, and look at where that overlaps with a museum's strengths and resources -- but how do you ask people who don’t come in your door? Reaching out to groups rather than individuals can help. Ultimately, museums looking to make connections with unions should asking union spokespeople how they might work together. Maybe what a union local chapter needs is monthly meeting space at a place that doesn’t break the bank, or an evening youth program so they don’t have to find childcare for meetings. Maybe they just want the museum to work with their consumer benefit program to offer discounted tickets and memberships. In addition, there may be content connections that museums overlook. In an exhibit about a particular industry (the history of canned food, the science of bridges, or art depicting maritime work), how do you incorporate the workers’ perspective? Unions may be able to help. This is especially important to round out your exhibit if you’re already incorporating perspectives from industry leaders. Once you have people from a union consulting on your exhibit, make sure to invite them in to see the final product.