Security workers at Seattle Art Museum have moved to join a union, part of a growing movement of museum employees across the nation seeking unionization to address concerns including wages, benefits and working conditions during the pandemic.

Last month, more than 70% of SAM’s 75 internal security workers submitted authorization cards to their employer signaling they would like to be represented by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 116. The effort, which has been underway for more than six months, was prompted by concerns over an unsafe environment during the COVID-19 pandemic and a loss of retirement benefits.

But there’s a hitch: Now the security workers are dependent on SAM voluntarily recognizing IUPAT as the representative of its security workers — something SAM says it’s not willing to do.

Aside from voluntary recognition, workers can receive union representation through an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. If a majority of the workers vote in favor of a union, NLRB will certify the union as the representative of the workers.

But that’s not an option for the SAM security workers if they want to join IUPAT. A statutory requirement in the National Labor Relations Act prohibits the National Labor Relations Board from certifying a union as the representative of security workers if it also represents nonsecurity workers, as IUPAT would.

This obstacle was pointed out by SAM last month in its response to the security workers’ request for union representation. IUPAT initially submitted a petition for election to the NLRB, but it was later withdrawn.

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Ronald Hooks, regional director of the NLRB, said the statutory requirement exists to avoid a conflict of interest.

“Security guards have a different interest in the sense that they are charged, in some sense, with guarding the employer’s property,” he said. “There would potentially be mixed interests with regard to labor issues if you had security guards in the same unit as other production workers.”

Since this law only applies to certification by the NLRB, SAM is able to voluntarily recognize IUPAT as the representative of the security workers. SAM security worker Josh Davis cited multiple security contractors across the nation who are represented by Service Employees International Union, a “mixed guard” union like IUPAT Local 116 would be, and were voluntarily recognized. Security personnel at Allied Universal, which contracts with Amazon, and Securitas, which contracts with Amazon and Microsoft, are part of SEIU.

Despite this precedent, SAM does not plan to provide voluntary recognition.

“An NLRB secret ballot election is the best way to determine whether a majority of eligible employees want to be represented. That eliminates any question about why employees might have signed authorization cards,” a statement from SAM said. “Also, voluntary recognition of this union would not address the conflict issues that the law is designed to prevent and that the union recognized by withdrawing its NLRB petition.”

Outside of voluntary recognition, other courses of action for the security workers are choosing another union to join, or becoming an independent union, neither of which Davis said they will pursue. After meeting with multiple other unions, Davis said the security workers chose IUPAT because they felt it would best allow them the freedom to design a contract suited to their specific needs. And, he said, forming an independent union would not allow them nearly as much bargaining power.

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“We just have to push for voluntary recognition, which is what we’re doing right now, and just continuing to gather support, and hope that the museum will do the right thing for its employees,” Davis said.

The security workers would like to bargain for increased wages and benefits, but a primary concern is safety during the pandemic. Particularly, private events at the museum, where attendees do not always follow the COVID guidelines that visitors are expected to follow during regular museum hours, have caused the visitor service officers to feel unsafe, Davis said.

“We feel like we need to have stronger ability to, for example, kick someone out if someone is refusing to wear a mask in the galleries,” he said. “It gets especially complicated when these people are either high-up corporate people who are renting the museum or sometimes high-up donors to the museum.”

Davis said the security workers have not always had a break room where they could properly socially distance and at one point were moved to a smaller room without any notice. After a couple of weeks, they were moved again into a larger space, but he wishes he and his colleagues would have been consulted prior to the change.

Since the pandemic began, the security workers have also lost their 403(b) retirement match, according to Davis.

“The idea of a union and the idea of contractually locking in the benefits that we receive became really important because as it stands right now, we know that we have no guarantee of the continuation of our benefits,” Davis said.

Workers at other museums nationwide have recently pushed to join or form unions, including employees at the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York Jewish Museum, in response to job insecurity, low wages and conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. Locally, in 2019, security workers at the Frye Art Museum voted to form the Art Workers Union.