Today, August 15, marks a major win for over 500 unionized employees who voted to ratify the first union contract with the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). After 14 months of negotiations, Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU) secured increased wages across the board as well as additional healthcare benefits and professional development resources — a source of encouragement for hundreds of other unionized Chicago art workers who were mobilized by the AIC and SAIC employees.
Union staffers agreed on a four-year contract that will guarantee a minimum 12.25% wage increase across the board. Additionally, the current $15.80 minimum wage at SAIC and AIC will rise to $17 this year and $18 by 2025, and any layoffs must be communicated three weeks in advance.
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Additional clauses in the contract outline that AIC and SAIC will post job opportunities internally for current employees and that qualified in-house applicants are guaranteed an interview. Health insurance premiums will be frozen for all employees in the following fiscal year to keep healthcare affordable, meaning employers will pay a higher percentage for total costs moving forward.
“The Art Institute deeply values its employees and is happy to have reached a contract agreement that meets the needs of our staff and allows us to continue providing a world-class education and cultural experience,” said Alexandra Holt, the executive vice president of finance and administration at AIC, told Hyperallergic in a statement.
Michael Zapata, an academic advisor at SAIC who was on the organizing committee for AICWU, told Hyperallergic that the ratification was “a substantial win for arts workers in Chicago.”
“This definitely creates a more stable environment, and I think it’s going to benefit not only employees, but benefit students and the trajectories of their own careers for a long time,” Zapata said.
“Things like staff turnover, insecurity in the workplace, and salaries that were not matching the work being done really created a chaotic and unstable environment at times,” he continued. “We were losing people who had gathered an enormous amount of experience — art workers coming in with master’s degrees, working artists showing in galleries … Losing those people impacted our students’ abilities to gain from us and the school.”
Anders Lindall, the director of public affairs at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), underscored that this contract win was beneficial for everyone and that public interest was critical for the successful negotiations and forcing institutions to act on their equity statements.
“There’s a direct correlation between those moments when AICWU members would hold rallies, pass out leaflets to the public, and picket or march outside during member preview days, and moving forward at the bargaining table,” he said. “When you have employees reaching out and explaining the working conditions to the public, it’s going to get more solidarity, more empathy, which forces employers to recognize and really go back to their mission statements as public-facing, student-facing spaces.”
Both Zapata and Lindall noted that the 14 months of negotiations were “frustrating,” but the vote to unionize and move to ratify the first union contract with AIC and SAIC proved to be inspirational for cultural institution workers across the city. Lindall specifically referenced the Field Museum employees who recently won their vote to unionize last March under AFSCME, citing the mobilization of the AICWU in January 2022 as the driving force.
“I think this win can serve as a model for other universities and museums on how to engage not only employers, but also the public, in this national wave of organizing happening in the cultural sector,” Lindall said.