Spotlighted in the Seattle Times and Crosscut, Josh Davis (pictured at far right) is a University of Washington Labor Studies student and security worker at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) that has been playing an active role in unionizing with the assistance of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 116, or IUPAT. Painters and Allied Trades Local 116, or IUPAT.
Davis and his co-workers previously aimed to encourage SAM to provide voluntary recognition of IUPAT 116 and sought their unionization to confront various workplace concerns. They later chose independent unionization and refiled under SAM VSO Union. Employees at SAM are currently voting whether or not to join the union. Davis spoke to the Bridges Center about his experiences and his education in Labor Studies at the UW.
You can connect with SAM VSO Union on Twitter: https://twitter.com/samvsounion
Bridges Center: There’s been a growing movement of museum employees seeking unionization across the nation amidst the pandemic. When and why did you first start looking at unionization?
JD: My co-workers and I started looking at unionizing in July of 2021. Seattle Art Museum chose to remove its employees’ last remaining retirement benefit as part of pandemic cutbacks. They also asked those who make the highest salaries in the museum to take a temporary pay cut as a pandemic cost-saving measure. The museum received between $2 and $5 million in PPP loans from the federal government to help weather the pandemic. The museum chose to back pay the 10% pay cut that those who earn the top salaries in the museum, but as of 3/18/22, the museum has yet to restore the lower-paid staff’s retirement benefit. The museum even had a pension for museum guards in past years, but museum management also took that away at some point.
Among other reasons, we realized that there was no guarantee of the continuation of any of our benefits without a union contract.
Bridges Center: Many recent unionization efforts have taken place during the pandemic. Has the pandemic made it difficult or easier to accomplish your vision of unionization?
JD: This is my first union campaign, so I cannot say for sure, but I think it made things easier in our case. Two reasons:
1. Because the pandemic drove home how many workers do not get a say over their bodily safety in a workplace. The museum repeatedly changed COVID-19 policy in ways that the employees felt were not safe, but complaining through the museum’s provided channels brought no change to these policies.
2. The accessibility and normalization of video meetings helped us. Not having to get everyone together in the same physical place to have our union meetings has allowed us a lot of flexibility we would not have had otherwise.
Bridges Center: SAM VSO Union chose independent unionization because you thought it would best allow the most freedom in a contract. Could you elaborate on the importance of having flexibility like this for the labor movement?
JD: Yes! Independent unions are exciting because the union consists of just the workers represented by the union, and no “third party”. This structure means the workers get to decide all contract goals and approve or deny the final contract by democratic vote. Our department is actually on our second run at unionization after the museum blocked our first attempt. SAM VSO Union (in partnership with IUPAT local 116) was blocked from holding an election when the museum pursued a legal strategy that successfully prevented NLRB election. Museum management stated “we could not legally be certified through election with IUPAT because we would be a security unit in a mixed-guard union”.
We had considered going independent at the beginning of our union push, but abandoned the idea because we felt it was too idealistic to try and unionize without the support of a large union. When we were backed into a metaphorical corner by the museum’s legal strategy, it felt like we had no other option than to go independent. We felt ready this time, as we had been through things once before. We were lucky to have great union reps at IUPAT Local 116 on our first try, and they gave us a lot of training on how to organize a union which prepared us for our independent push.
Bridges Center: Do you think your education at the University of Washington gave you the tools to pursue labor activism?
JD: Absolutely. Having a more theoretical understanding of the structures that make up unions and labor law has helped me make more informed decisions. In addition, Professor Jake Grumbach’s Introduction to Labor studies class gives an excellent intro to wealth inequality in general, which helps contextualize the work of unions and provides inspiration for why they are essential forces of social change.
Starting the class in January has been helpful as a resource. Legitimately, I learned many things in lecture that I immediately texted my co-organizers to factor into our campaign decisions.
Bridges Center: What inspired you to enroll in Labor Studies?
JD: I started feeling the potential for positive change in people’s lives through labor struggle. We got some wins early in our organizing process (management gave us a significant raise), which helped me believe that we could have a real effect by acting together. I started thinking about the exploitation and abuse we accept from bosses in our workplaces and began feeling inspired to see if there was anything I could do about it.
I knew that there were foundational and historical contexts that I was missing around labor, so I knew I needed to learn about it.
Bridges Center: What educational and social values do you think are crucial to unionization and the labor movement?
JD: I think that people have to understand that this process of labor organizing is extremely personal, social, and psychological. It will make you uncomfortable, stressed out, and it may make some people in your workplace dislike (or in some cases, despise) you. Individuals have been conditioned to say “politics do not belong in the workplace” and “if you do not like it here, then leave.” Our employer is not happy or proud that we are unionizing. Even “liberal nonprofits” use the same union-busting playbooks as Amazon and all the rest. They have tried to keep it secret from other departments in the museum, blocking our ability to all-email, while they send emails to all-staff that we believe disparage our union. They have gone after individual organizers of the union with character assassination.
My personal social values have changed from this process. I am much more comfortable ‘disrupting the status quo’ than I used to be, because I know that it is worth it. Our goal is long-term, and it will hopefully be a long-term institution at our workplace that will protect and win greater benefits for its workers for years to come.
Bridges Center: What outcomes would you like to see in the overall labor movement?
JD: One thing that I took home from my labor class is the importance of worker-led unions. These can be independent unions like we are doing, or options like when we were working with IUPAT local 116, where there is a focus on training the workers to lead their own union. The most important questions I would recommend individuals ask when choosing a union are “Are the workers a meaningful part of the contract designing and bargaining process?” and “Do the workers have approval/veto power of the contract in negotiations?” This level of control and leadership is essential to create unions that are strong enough to get big wins and then remain strong.
This organizing work has created a lot of connection for all of us working on the union because we know that we have each other's backs through anything. You get to have meaningful connections with your co-workers as you talk about their goals and what changes would improve their individual lives.
Thanks for the questions and the opportunity to speak with y’all at the Harry Bridges Center!