Lecture Notes: why can't museum workers get organized? | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: why can't museum workers get organized? 

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When Therese Quinn got a job at the Chicago Children's Museum in the early 90s, she was handed a packet of paperwork from the human resources department.

"I was going through it and I came across a sheet of paper that said I agreed that I can be fired at any time without any notice for any reason," she says. "I was like, 'Why would I sign that?'

"They said everybody has to sign that. I was so shocked. I called a legal aid hot line, and they said it's a typical at-will employment contract. They wanted us to know that we had no protection whatsoever."

Instead of acquiescing, she wrote and signed her own statement explaining why she wouldn't sign theirs. "The process got me thinking about why some kind of representation is important for people in workplaces, whether it's a cultural institution or any other kind of workplace," she says. "I also started wondering why more people of color aren't visiting or working in museums."

She stayed at the Children's Museum for nearly two years. Then she became a freelance exhibit developer and entered UIC's graduate program in curriculum development, where her doctoral research focused on the work experiences of museum staff members who belong to a racial or other minority group.

While in school she kept tabs on the Service Employees International Union's attempts to organize area museums--including the Chicago Historical Society and the Children's Museum--and marched in a 1999 demonstration at the Art Institute (where she carried a sign that said "I'm Going Baroque"). But the SEIU was successful at only one institution--the DuSable Museum of African American History. "It was much simpler there, because they have a tiny staff compared to the Art Institute or the Field, which are massive," says Quinn, who recently completed her PhD and is currently the associate director of UIC's Center for Youth and Society.

Her goal in organizing "The Labor of Culture," an upcoming open forum on museums and unions, is to find out why the SEIU failed or--in the case of the DuSable--succeeded. Principal players from previous organizing attempts are scheduled to speak.

"A lot of the people I talked to who were involved in organizing drives said it wasn't safe to talk about them when they were still working there--that the manager would hear and would retaliate," she says. "This seemed to be a way to make it potentially safer for people to talk about these issues."

The forum takes place from 6 to 8 PM Monday, May 14, at the Peace Museum at the Garfield Park Field House, 100 N. Central Park, as part of the quarterly meeting of the Chicago Museum Exhibitor's Group. Reservations are required and a $5 donation is requested; call 773-638-6450.

--Cara Jepsen

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