There’s a new union in town — the Art Workers Union (AWU), a small, independent bargaining unit formed by and for security guards at the Frye Art Museum.

The AWU joins its fellow workers in arts and cultural institutions across the country, particularly in New York, who have been pushing for unionization in recent months, including the New Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Tenement Museum.

Last Friday, a small crowd of around 40 people, including Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and City Council candidate Shaun Scott, gathered at the entrance to the Frye to announce the existence of the AWU and its sole demand: recognition from the Frye.

“We organized the Art Workers Union out of commitment to the people that make the museum so great: all the visitors who appreciate it every day,” security guard Sander Moberg said. “The Frye’s security staff is mostly made up of artists and folks who studied art. We know what that level of knowledge and insight can bring to our visitors’ experience.”

The Frye currently has 12 guards plus one security manager, said security guard and AWU organizer Caitlin Lee. Most of those are part-time positions. “In reality, $15, especially part-time, is poverty wages in this city,” she said, talking about one co-worker who is sleeping on a couch in Kent and commuting to work, another who has delayed a surgery because she can’t afford it, and a third (Moberg) who was kept for months at 34.5 hours a week — just below the 35 hours per week that would trigger benefits.

“The Frye has heard staff express this before, that it’s a real hardship on people,” Lee said. “And they keep saying ‘our hands are tied, our hands are tied,’ so there was frustration among all of us. If we don’t do this now, it’s going to stay the same.”

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In 2017, the Frye sold a parking lot across the street for $11.4 million to the Vancouver, B.C.-based Westbank Corp., which plans to build two 33-story residential towers with market-rate units (meaning it will not take part in the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability program to promote affordable housing), according to the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce. The Frye has always been free, said museum spokesperson Ingrid Langston, and proceeds from the $11.4 million sale “have been reinvested in support of the museum’s endowment so that we can uphold our mission to always be free.”

“Congratulations to the workers for taking this step,” Sawant said during the Friday rally, and touched on her signature twin themes of higher wages and affordable housing. “As we support these workers in their union organizing, we also must build the movement for rent control, and tax big businesses so we can fund a massive social housing program.”

After the event, the Frye released a statement acknowledging the security staff’s unionization efforts and request to be recognized: “The Frye Art Museum celebrates the extraordinary talents and efforts of our entire staff and recognizes the important role they each play … we look forward to beginning a discussion with them to understand their position.”

Dana Kopel, a senior editor at the New Museum in New York and one of its new union organizers, said forming a union is hard work and can bring uncomfortable surprises. When the New Museum’s management heard about its employees’ unionization efforts, for example, it hired the Kentucky-based consulting firm Adams Nash Haskett and Sheridan, whose homepage advertises “counter-union campaigns,” “union avoidance training,” and other services to “quickly convince your employees to vote against the union, because it is a bad thing for them.”

“We think of museums as beacons of equality and progress,” Kopel said. “The New Museum puts forward a very progressive face, so for people on the outside to see the museum acting very differently toward its own workers was a big shock.”

According to The New York Times, the New Museum issued a statement saying it had hired Adams Nash for an “initial consult” and that the firm was no longer employed by the museum. The museum’s statement also said: “We fully respect our employees’ right to self-organize, and we will respect whatever decision they make. We don’t believe unionization is the best way to preserve what is special about our culture or advance change,” according to The Times report.

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Matthew Finnell, a labor organizer with the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), said over 90 percent of Frye security guards signed required “authorization cards” to trigger a formal election process monitored by the National Labor Relations Board, which AWU hopes to hold on June 20. On June 10, AWU, the Frye and an NLRB representative are scheduled to meet to hear the Frye’s response to the unionization efforts.

Stephen Kelley, who started working as a Frye security guard last October, says he and his co-workers want to be able to afford keeping their jobs, and to do them well.

“We could use one or two more people working each day to keep eyes on all the galleries at once,” he said. “We would be more vigilant in helping patrons and making sure the artwork is safe. We see people touching the artwork all the time. A week or two into the Tschabalala Self exhibition, a sculpture got bumped and almost fell over. In the Frye salon, people touch the art — the canvases — at least several times a week.”

At this point, Lee said, AWU is a small and narrow union, only open to security-guard workers at the Frye — but that could change if workers at other arts institutions, such as security guards at Seattle Art Museum (where a unionization attempt fizzled last year), express interest.

“One fight at a time,” Finnell, the DSA organizer, said. “One fight at a time.”

Once AWU gets to the bargaining table, Lee said, it hopes to negotiate for better wages and distribution of hours. “And ORCA cards,” she added. “ORCA cards would be an amazing improvement.”