Denver Art Museum Workers Move to Unionize

Over 100 Denver Art Museum (DAM) employees have filed to unionize, calling for higher wages, increased transparency between leadership and workers, and more opportunities for advancement. Backed by the nationwide American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, staffers across nine departments at the Colorado cultural institution announced the decision in a community letter that has so far accumulated more than 650 signatures from employees and supporters alike.

The campaign formally began earlier this month when DAM staffers alerted administrators of their intentions to organize at an all-staff meeting on January 11. After the museum denied labor organizers’ request for voluntary recognition — a demand that would ratify the union without an official election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) workers responded by filing for an election with the NLRB. 

Andy Sinclair, a spokesperson for DAM, told Hyperallergic that institutional leadership “indicated it would support a secret-ballot election for employees to express their voices in a vote” rather than recognizing the union outright.

“The Denver Art Museum prioritizes its employees and their needs,” Sinclair said. “If unionization is the path that is chosen, the museum is committed to working with the union.”

Sean Chase, a DAM “gallery host” responsible for supervising exhibition spaces and upholding museum policies, told Hyperallergic that staffers were “very disappointed” when the museum’s leadership denied the request for voluntary recognition “pretty much right off the bat after the announcement.”

“In a lot of ways, actually, that really galvanized people. I think that made [staff] realize that right now, unfortunately, the administration just isn’t wanting to really listen and act on the concerns of the staff,” Chase said. “Especially with the museum emphasizing its values of diversity, inclusion, creativity, and respect, it was felt that this was not really them putting their best foot forward and engaging with us honestly.”

Chase also explained that while this unionization campaign formally kicked off this year, DAM employees have been interested in organizing for some time, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that revealed common frustrations across departments at the museum. 

Although the date for the NLRB vote has not yet been determined, Denver Art Museum Workers United (DAMWU) members say that a supermajority of eligible employees — approximately 240 museum workers — support unionization.

DMA employees Sean Chase and Tei Luga hold signs supporting unionization.

Kit Bernal, a curatorial assistant at DAM since 2021, told Hyperallergic that one of the biggest concerns among staff is increasing wages to keep pace with the rising cost of living. Testimonials from DAM employees echo those comments, such as in the case of Marisela Guillen, a Sales and Services staff member who wrote that she’s witnessed her colleagues “financially and emotionally struggle” during her time at the museum.

As of January 1, the starting base hourly wage for the museum’s employees is $19, which is 71 cents more than Colorado’s minimum wage of $18.29 but lower than the $20.25 living wage for an adult without children in Denver County, as estimated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technolgy’s Living Wage calculator.

Bernal noted that since she began working at DAM, this base pay has increased and most museum employees have received scheduled raises, but despite these incremental advancements, even longtime staffers continue to only make marginally more than the lowest wage floor.

In addition to better pay, Bernal and Chase said that many employees are concerned about understaffing, which has resulted in high workloads for certain departments and taken a toll on staff. Manda Remmen, an assistant mountmaker in the Conservation and Technical Studies department who began working at DAM in 2019, told Hyperallergic that she is in support of the union because she loves her work at the museum, but has had difficulty seeing her colleagues “be so spread thin,” which has had a toll on the quality of care for the museum’s art collection.

But aside from better pay, workload, and transparency, the most rousing motivator for staffers appears to be their shared commitment to obtaining a more supportive and democratic work environment.

“I am good at what I do, and my responsibilities are ever-increasing, but that is not reflected in my job description or in my income,” Remmen told Hyperallergic. “I see my work environment as not sustainable and that is hard to come to terms with because, as I mentioned before, I really love what I do.”

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