For Mia workers, fresh approach to bargaining delivers big gains

Workers picketed the Mia in February. (photo courtesy OPEIU Local 12)

After their first public contract campaign in recent memory, union members who work at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) ratified a new agreement yesterday that will raise wages by $4 per hour across the board over the next two and a half years.

The contract covers about 120 members of Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 12 who work in a variety of roles throughout the museum. Their previous contract expired in January.

Negotiators reached a tentative agreement on the new pact Friday, March 3, and union members called off informational picketing planned each of the following two days – opening weekend of a new ticketed exhibit at the Mia.

Local 12 steward Aaron Barger, an IT systems administrator and member of the union’s bargaining team, said the scheduled action put pressure on management to reach a deal.

“It’s not something you want to have at the beginning of a new show,” he said of the picketing.

In addition to wage increases, union members won new language enshrining progressive discipline in the contract. They held the line on the existing health care split with management, added new curator positions to the bargaining unit and gained flexibility with regard to certain paid holidays when the museum is open to the public.

“It treats Black Friday, New Year’s Day and Juneteenth as optional holidays,” Barger said. “So if you want to come in and work those days you can, but if you observe Eid or a Jewish high holiday or something else of more significance to you, then you can do that.”

Union members made a strategic decision as began in November 2022 not to prioritize paid family leave in contract talks, Barger said. DFL lawmakers had won a “trifecta” of control over the state House, Senate and governor’s office, improving the chances that legislation creating a statewide insurance pool to extend family and medical leave to workers statewide will pass this legislative session.

Instead, Local 12’s bargaining team made wage increases its top priority, and they became the biggest sticking point as talks progressed.

Management came to the table expecting “bargaining as usual,” Barger said. But Mia workers had watched as workers at other museums in the Twin Cities and across the country joined together in the wake of the pandemic, creating unions and fighting for improved wages, benefits and working conditions.

“We are one of the oldest art museum unions in the country, at least 40 years old,” said Barger, who has worked at the Mia for four-plus years. “I think this is the first time we’ve held a picket since this union was founded.

“It’s almost like the union had become a formality or just a legal entity. But after COVID hit and there was a change in (Mia) leadership, people kind of woke up to the fact that we have to adopt more activist tactics.”

That meant informational picketing in February, a button campaign, an online petition and a switch from closed to open bargaining, which allowed union negotiators to share management’s proposals with fellow members.

“We could report back and say, ‘Here’s what the boss is saying. Here’s what they think of you,’” Barger said. “Your best organizer really becomes the boss.”

With a newly active and engaged membership, Barger added, the Mia bargaining unit is in a better position to build on its gains in future negotiations.

“The union is not a separate entity from you,” he said. “You are your union, and the people at the table are there to represent you. Ultimately, the work doesn’t happen without the workers.”

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