California Association of Museums Conference has a Panel on Labor Unions, but Its Unbalanced

For their annual conference, California Association of Museums (CAM) is having a panel (today, March 6) called “Museums and Labor Unions.” The panel consists of a partner from the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, the Deputy Museum Director of the New Children’s Museum in San Diego (which recently unionized and is currently negotiating their contract), and an employee from San Fransisco’s Exploratorium who is a member of SEIU Local 1021. The description reads,

“Private museums in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, and Los Angeles have experienced a wave of unionization efforts in recent years. What are the factors that are contributing to this movement? How can a union change a museum’s internal dynamics? What are the rights of unions, workers and management? How do the new NLRB rules impact the exercise of these rights? The goal of this educational session is to discuss how unions are reshaping museum labor relations, while recognizing and respecting that one model does not fit all organizations.”

Seyfarth Shaw is an anti-union law firm that fought against Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement in the 1970s and more recently represented the Weinstein Company against sexual assault charges. On their blog, they talk about the importance of workplaces cutting off unionizing efforts before they start. This is from their Nov 15, 2010 post entitled “The Rise of Millennials and their Potential Support for Labor Unions”:

“Millennials are an ever-growing portion of the workforce, and they generally have favorable views toward labor unions.  Employers would be well-advised to be attuned to this reality and they may want to consider developing and implementing strategies aimed at heading off union organizing before it starts.

Art + Museum Transparency set a letter to the director of CAM asking for clarification on why a known anti-union law firm was included on the panel, when there are many options out there. 60 museum and arts workers from across the country signed the letter. The sentiment expressed hope in having conversations about labor unions in museums, but disappointment in the selection of an anti-union law firm, a person from museum upper management and only one union member. Regardless of intentions, this panel is clearly not balanced. The body of the letter reads,

To Celeste DeWald, Executive Director, California Association of Museums,

 When we saw that this year’s CAM Conference includes a session called “Museums and Labor Unions,” we were excited that this statewide coalition of museum administrators and executives would participate in the ongoing national discussion about labor in cultural institutions. We were hopeful that the session on museum unions—alongside panels discussing topics like “Decolonizing Initiatives” and “Reaching Underrepresented Communities”—would provide a thoughtful, critical platform for an important issue facing museums nationwide.

We welcome balance and nuance in any discussion of labor in museums. However, upon scrutiny of the program description, we’re concerned about the framing and intentions of this session, which provides a platform for union-busting and thus legitimizes this practice within museums. Jeffrey A. Berman, the lawyer slated to speak in the session, comes from Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a law firm with a virulently anti-worker track record dating back decades. In the 1970s, Seyfarth represented the interests of California’s growers in their campaign against Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers; they also represented the city of Normal, IL, during a forty-day firefighters strike. More recently, in 2018, Seyfarth attorneys defended the Weinstein Company against a suit alleging the Company’s complicity in covering up Weinstein’s pattern of criminal sexual misconduct.

We are deeply concerned that this session will present a biased perspective on labor unions in museums—one that is hostile to the rights of museum workers in California and beyond. In the last year, museum workers have unionized in unprecedented numbers. Just around the corner from the site of this year’s conference, workers at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art will soon begin negotiating a union contract that they hope will make the museum a more equitable, sustainable institution. Meanwhile, 70 former employees from the Marciano Art Foundation are still reeling from the mass layoffs caused by the heartless anti-worker sentiments espoused by firms like Seyfarth.

Some of the reasons workers like us have unionized are evidenced by the diverse range of panel topics on your conference program. While we welcome critical reflection on the opportunities and challenges of collective organizing in the workplace, a nonprofit conference is no place for union-busting. We’d welcome your clarification of the purpose of the panel and the intent behind including a representative of a notorious anti-union law firm on it.

After receiving a response, AMT followed up with a letter directly asking for the removal of the Seyfarth rep.

Dear Celeste DeWald,

Thank you for your prompt response. We’re grateful that you are prioritizing a discussion of the museum unionization movement at the conference, and appreciate your dedication to factuality and balance in this conversation.

However, the inclusion of Jeffrey Berman of Seyfarth on the panel remains worrisome to us. His hostility to organized labor—and to workers generally—is blatantly in evidence in blog posts such as this one, in which he and his colleagues praise recent changes implemented by Trump’s NLRB, which make it more difficult for employees to organize and weaken workers’ rights. Are these positions that California museums want to align themselves with?

Seyfarth, moreover, was far from the only option to consult on labor law as it affects museums. A lawyer from the Los Angeles–based firm Rothner, Segall and Greenstone or a representative from the NLRB would have been able to speak to that concern with less antipathy toward workers’ rights.

While we understand that the panel is happening tomorrow, and by no means do we want to prevent a conversation around museums and labor from taking place at the conference, we ask that you please reconsider Jeffrey Berman’s inclusion. Platforming such an explicitly anti-worker lawyer sends a message to museums that union-busting is an acceptable practice and that their employees should prepare to face harsh consequences if they decide to unionize. This harms museum workers not just in California, but everywhere.


A coalition of unionized museum workers and allies

The panel is going on right now as Marabou writes, so Marabou will update if they hear anything!

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