Victory! Tacoma Art Museum Unionizes

Workers vote unanimously to join AFSCME Council 28/WFSE as TAM Workers United, Washington's first multi-department art museum union.

Want to organize a union at your cultural institution? Get started here.

After 12 months of fighting for their union, workers at Tacoma Art Museum voted overwhelmingly to form Tacoma Art Museum Workers United. This year-long campaign brought workers from multiple departments together, the first museum workers union in Washington to do so. This win comes with gratitude for the overwhelming support of Pierce County labor organizers, political advocates, community groups, artists, and more.

The TAM Workers United bargaining unit now represents 26 workers.

“I’m excited to improve the culture and have DEIA representation,” said Vanessa Mercedes, a museum educator. “We need the support so we can support our community, so I’m really excited to be represented by TAMWU.”

TAM Workers United began organizing as a wave of cultural worker labor movements spread across the country. Their fight began due to inequitable conditions that were degrading to both the workers’ quality of life as well as the livelihood of the museum.

Activists at TAM began organizing in 2022 to address stagnant wages, unsafe working conditions, high turnover, and systemic inequity within the museum. They organized for the well-being of the museum itself, which had recently fallen on hard financial times, and to have an active role in decision making. 

Workers believe that TAM can only live up to its mission to “inspire broader perspectives and cultivate a compassionate future” if TAM staff are treated with dignity and welcomed to contribute to those broader perspectives.

TAMWU now joins the largest cultural workers union in Washington, AFSCME Council 28/WFSE, and the largest in the nation, AFSCME, which represents 10,000 museum workers at 91 cultural institutions in the public and private sector.

They hope that their success will encourage all cultural workers in Washington to organize with WFSE, creating a powerful force to raise standards and move the industry forward.

The campaign to unionize Tacoma Art Museum campaign was notable in its broad scope and its focus on equity and diversity. TAMWU includes Visitors Services Representatives, the most diverse segment of the workforce and among the lowest paid, despite the museum’s early attempt to exclude them. 

TAMWU is the first cultural workers union in Washington state to successfully organize workers across departments. Workers in customer-facing frontline positions as well as administrative staff are protected within the same agreement, providing a united front and increased solidarity throughout the entire museum. 

“It was really important that this union included as many people as possible,” said Carrie Morton, TAM's Museum Store Manager. “One of the reasons we decided to form a union is to fight for more equity as an institution. Fighting for everyone was a core tenant of us unionizing.”

Unions, elected officials, artists, community organizations, and local businesses showed an incredible outpouring of support for TAMWU, showing up at multiple rallies at the museum. Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and the entire Tacoma City Council penned a letter to the TAM Board of Directors urging them to recognize TAMWU and proceed to an election. 

This victory is just the beginning of TAMWU’s efforts to improve the working environment at TAM and the museum itself. Leaders within TAMWU are excited to get to work negotiating their first union contract. 

“It feels great to be a founding member of this union,” said Miles Byrd, a visitor services worker. “I’m really proud of what we were able to do, to see the community at TAM come together and see how much we care about each other. That’s made me feel really good about being here.”

TAMWU is grateful to the TAM Board for recognizing their union. With this recognition, they hope to collaborate and bargain for working conditions that ensures the museum thrives through an empowered workforce.

Interested in following along with TAMWU? Follow them on Instagram.

How We Got Here

On October 17, 2022 we launched our public union campaign as Tacoma Art Museum Worker’s United! In celebration of our one year anniversary, we want to look back and celebrate all the wins we’ve had in the past 11 months with the support of community members like you.

October 17– TAMWU goes public and we ask for voluntary recognition from TAM. Over 200 community members pledge their support within the first days of our campaign!

October 24– TAM does not meet our deadline for voluntary recognition. We don’t give up; this denial by TAM further encourages our solidarity efforts.

October 29Over 100 Tacoma community members and TAMWU supporters join us to rally for voluntary recognition outside of TAM. 

November 17– TAM Board does NOT vote to recognize our union, despite over 80% support among workers. This stokes the fire up even higher for us, as we became more determined to win recognition!

November 19TAM Worker Solidarity Day brings even more community support out for our union! Supporters show up to TAM, enjoy the art on display, and show the TAM Board the full support TAMWU has from Tacoma and arts lovers all over Washington!

December 10– Workers and supporters take to downtown Tacoma to hand out leaflets and information about our union, garnering support from local businesses all over Tacoma!

January 25, 2023 – The Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council writes a public letter of support for TAMWU, increasing the voices of support for us by 5,000 hardworking union members in Pierce County!

January 27– We officially win free parking at work for all staff, a longtime goal of staff and a vocal goal of our union! Starting February 1, 2023, all staff no longer had to pay for parking thereby putting our hard-earned money back into our pockets rather than towards parking fees

January to March – Community supporters from Tacoma Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation show up to help us pass our leaflets to museumgoers to raise awareness and support of our campaign. 

February to March– Dozens of local unions and community groups join the Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council to stand with our union by writing solidarity letters that call on TAM to grant us voluntary recognition. Groups include: Teamsters Local 117, Tacoma Labor School, Soundview UniServ Council, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23, 350 Tacoma, ILWU Washington Area District Council, workers at the WA State Arts Commission, Pierce County library workers, WFSE locals, Tacoma Education Association, and UFCW 367. ,

March 4– A successful flyering event at the member opening of the exhibition Camille Patha: Passion Pleasure Powerincreases TAM member support of TAMWU by increasing visibility!

March 6– The Pierce County Central Labor Council, AFL-CO, and all 96 of its affiliates announce support of TAMWU.

March 10– We propose an independent union election to the TAM Board. This election would enable us to have the most equitable union possible, preventing racist and sexist division of our union.

March 20– WA State Senate Democrats, Washington Democrats Chair, and Legislative District 27 Democrats announce support for TAMWU and demand voluntary recognition!

March 22– Tacoma’s Mayor Woodards and the entire Tacoma City Council announce support of the TAMWU campaign.

March 23We held a huge community rally right outside TAM, directly prompting TAM’s Board to finally meet with us and discuss our independent election proposal.

March 31– The deadline TAM’s Board promised to adhere to passes, without a decision regarding our union. The Board simply walks past workers and supporters without comment after their meeting was over.

April– TAM’s Board refuses to include security guards in our union, attempts to exclude members of our leadership from eligibility along with other workers in an attempt to divide us by racist, classist, and sexist lines.

May 11 – The WA State Labor Council visits TAM to celebrate our union campaign and encourage us to keep fighting for recognition with their solidarity. 

May 12 – The Washington Museum Association announce their support of our union. 

May 24– TAM is awarded Best Museum of 2023 by South Sound Magazine and members of TAMWU accept the award in our union gear!

May 24– Senator Karen Keiser and our union siblings at Storm King Art Center and the Art Institute of Chicago join us at our press conference to call for TAM’s new Executive Director to recognize TAMWU!

June 1– The Washington Museum Association writes a letter in solidarity of our union.

June 7– We welcome TAM’s new Executive Director Andrew Maus and call on him to support negotiations between our legal counsel and TAM’s legal counsel toward a voluntary recognition and independent election agreement. 

June 23– TAM’s Board releases a public statement announcing that they will agree to an independent election and recognition for our union, but without our colleagues in security. 

July to September – Negotiations continue toward a voluntary recognition and independent election agreement so that we can finally vote YES TAMWU! 

As legal negotiations head toward their conclusion, we are eager to vote YES for our union this year and move on to the important work of negotiating our first contract. Thank you to all our community supporters for your relentless solidarity in our effort to unionize!