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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

Local 1559 workers win unionization campaign at American Museum of Natural History


As votes were tallied after a delay in counting, workers at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) won the right to unionize by an overwhelming margin, a significant victory for DC 37 and Local 1559.

The May 26 announcement was one big step in a long process of militant workplace organizing and the fight continues.

“This had been a long time coming,” said Local 1559 President Christine LeBeau. “For the last 20-plus years, AMNH has systematically reduced its union workforce, using every economic downturn as an excuse to lay off our members, hiring non-union staff, temps and outside contractors to do our jobs.”

LeBeau pointed out that this ongoing issue is faced by many cultural institutions, resulting in drastic reductions in the union workforce.

“Local 1559 alone went from over 200 members just before the year 2000 to a historic low of 66 members this year,” LeBeau said.

The cost of living in the New York City area outstripped workers’ salaries at many of the City’s cultural institutions. By 2019, worker dissatisfaction with wages became the focus of an article in The New York Times.

In the meantime, working conditions at AMNH worsened. LeBeau was blunt: “Low pay, severely below industry standards, understaffing, lack of career advancement, crumbling infrastructure, you name it.”

“There is a powerful movement afoot — the American worker is waking up to the vast unfairness of their condition, and they see a fight to be fought and a victory within reach. The people united will never be divided.”

She found it baffling that the institution never seemed to have funding to improve the physical conditions at the museum, hiring adequate staff or pay raises, but always found money for executive salaries.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which LeBeau characterized as “the tsunami of disruption and terror,” workers sacrificed to protect their jobs.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, staff was not just scared for their safety, they were petrified that they were about to enter a deep depression on a scale with the one we read about in history books. In 2020, members represented by Local 1559 rallied to take temporary pay cuts to save our union brothers and sisters from layoffs. We saved roughly 17 members from being laid off at that time.”

The local began to organize despite AMNH efforts to blunt the effort, including issuing pay raises to non-union employees. An organizing committee was formed in conjunction with the DC 37 Organizing Department. Workers voted in March and April of this year, but because of an accident at the office of the National Relations Board, tabulation was delayed until late May. The local now represents 254 workers in the AMNH system, including 184 new members as a result of the organizing effort.

Currently, AMNH is fighting to prevent several titles from joining the union, including 17 graduate students. The local is pushing for these workers to be included in the bargaining unit.

For LeBeau, the win at AMNH offers a lesson for future organizing efforts.

“Morale in the American workforce is just about as low as it can get. Folks are desperate for better circumstances, a living wage, decent benefits, job security, and assurances that their work is valued. As a result, people are reaching out to unions to regain some agency, some control of their futures and their families,” LeBeau said.