COMMUNITY

Inside the worker-led push to unionize the Wexner Center for the Arts

Amid a nationwide resurgence in the conversation around organized labor, employees at the Ohio State art institute recently announced an intent to form a union

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Wexner employees Matt Reber, Miranda Inscho and Jo Snyder outside of the Wexner Center on the OSU campus. (Photo by Tim Johnson)

In August 2020, the Wexner Center for the Arts hosted an exhibition by visual artist LaToya Ruby Frazier. Dubbed “The Last Cruze,” the exhibit centered on pictures taken by Frazier of the union workers at a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, which was officially unallocated by the company and ceased production of the Chevrolet Cruze in 2019.

During these uncertain final months, Frazier spent long stretches in Lordstown photographing members of the UAW Local 1112. These images formed the crux of the exhibit at the Wex and were also compiled for a companion book, included alongside informational passages and one instructional section headlined “How to organize a union in your workplace.”

At the same time the Wex staged “The Last Cruze,” a number of its workers began to engage in early conversations about forming a union, motivated by long-standing issues further exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Seeing that work in our galleries, at a contemporary art museum, where a lot of contemporary art is geared toward the elites and there’s a lot of money wrapped up in it... to actually see work that represented working people in the building I was working in, I just thought it was cool,” said Matt Reber, manager of store operations and a Wex employee of 15 years. “So, we had this cool labor show, and we had these people from Lordstown in the building, actual union members in the building. … And then you’re seeing these things play out in your workplace in real time, where, oh, you’re being forced to go back to work [in a pandemic], and your concerns aren’t being addressed. You’re experiencing all of this stuff that had seemed so far away.”

“[The exhibit] made it seem like this idea — of unionizing, of collective action, of organizing — is important,” said Jo Snyder, learning and public practice programs coordinator and a Wex employee of just over two years. “It’s important enough to be art and to be in our galleries. This is something the Wexner Center values.”

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On March 4, following months of extensive conversation and planning that started to take on a more serious tone in the fall of 2021, the employees announced their intent to form a union with AFSCME Ohio Council 8 under the banner of Wex Workers United, citing concerns over health and safety, pay, transparency and top-down decision-making, among other factors. (Employees at the Wex established contact with AFSCME in the research process, drawn in by the organization’s Cultural Workers United, which represents museum workers, in addition to staff at zoos, planetariums, science centers and other cultural institutions nationwide.)

“The last two years have greatly exacerbated long-standing issues at the Wex and Ohio State, including pay equity and working culture,” the group wrote in a letter sent to leadership at both the Wexner Center and Ohio State. “When the center reopened to the public [following the initial COVID-19 shutdown], some of the lowest-paid among us were required to put our health on the line and return to public-facing responsibilities on-site, before vaccines were available.”

Across myriad fields, the pandemic has served as something of a wake-up call for workers, particularly so-called “essential workers” in fields such as the food service industry, which has been beset by staffing issues.

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“I feel like there’s something in the air where people who work are tired of being pushed around,” said filmmaker Steven Bognar, who has an extensive history with the Wex, and whose work with Julia Reichert has consistently focused on labor issues (“American Factory”; “9to5: The Story of a Movement”). “And I think it’s partly that the pandemic has made us all realize how fragile life is, how uncertain it is. Why should we spend our years being treated badly?”

“If you take anything that’s happening in any workplace and then you throw a pandemic on top of it, it just really exposes everything,” said Reber, adding that staff furloughs and pay reductions experienced by Wex employees in the wake of COVID-19 only heightened the economic gulf that exists within the institution. “Having that explained to me as a shared sacrifice by someone who might make 10 times what I make, it just really highlighted those pay inequities.”

While conversations about forming a union started to intensify around the same time that former Wexner Center director Johanna Burton exited the institution in September 2021, the members of Wex Workers United said Burton’s departure had little impact on their thinking. If anything, Snyder said, the shakeup reiterated the importance of establishing a union, which could help provide employees a sense of stability amid leadership changes. “The problem of not having a union is you’re subject to the whims of whoever your direct boss is at the time,” Snyder said.

Though grievances helped drive some of the initial conversations around the Wex union — “In any workplace, you’re going to talk to your co-workers about your concerns, or thoughts you have about how the job can improve,” Snyder said — employees said they quickly embraced organizing as a means of escaping this negative downward spiral. “I’ve worked at places where that happens, where it ends in misery, and we decided to do something about it,” Reber said. “We found we actually like the place where we work. … And we want to help the institution be what it says it is.”

In announcing its intent to unionize, Wex Workers United expressed hope that university leadership would opt to voluntarily recognize the union. Asked if the university would take this step, a spokesperson provided an emailed statement credited to Wexner Center Co-Interim Executive Directors Megan Cavanaugh and Kelly Stevelt, which said that Wex Workers United had not filed a petition for voluntary recognition, but rather had announced an intent to file a Petition for Election Representation with the State Employment Relations Board (SERB).

Moving forward, Wex Workers United, with guidance from AFSCME Ohio Council 8, will indeed file for an election with SERB, which will serve as an intermediary through the process, said AFSCME organizer Corissa Spence. “They’re going to be the ones who facilitate the election, handle the vote count, certify the results — things like that,” Spence said.

The Wex currently employs 70 full-time staffers, along with roughly 150 students, part-time staff, security officers and volunteers. The four members of Wex Workers United interviewed by Alive said ongoing conversations suggest “a great majority support” for a union among staff. If the vote is successful, Wex employees would have representation with AFSCME, and the new union could then begin the process of negotiating a contract with the university for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

The union push at the Wexner Center is unfolding at a point in time when the labor movement is experiencing a bit of an attention renaissance in the United States. Recently, Starbucks has claimed headlines with a growing grassroots union movement that has seen workers at more than 100 Starbucks stores in 19 states vote to unionize, including the Downtown Columbus shop located at 88 E. Broad St., which filed its intent to form a union on Monday. And a Gallup poll conducted in August 2021 found union support at its highest point in the U.S. since 1965, with 68 percent of Americans holding favorable views of labor unions. 

“With everything that’s happened during the pandemic, people are really starting to understand that a lot of times they have the upper hand in their places of work to be able to negotiate better terms of employment,” Spence said. “Also, with the union movement, a lot of people tend to think of mine workers and auto workers — these blue-collar entities. And there’s really been this shift in understanding that a union is for everybody. Your job doesn’t have to be physically threatening to need protection.” 

Despite the renewed interest, however, union membership levels remain at historic lows, with the union membership rate for U.S. workers standing at 10.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from nearly one-third of American workers in the 1950s. And many businesses continue to take a jaundiced view of unions. Starbucks, for example, runs a website called We Are One Starbucks, which labels employees “partners” and encourages them to vote "no" on union efforts. Workers also said the company has engaged in union-busting tactics.

But there are sectors where unions have seen growth, including within art institutes. If successful, the Wexner Center would join a wave of more than two dozen art institutions where labor organizing efforts have taken root in the last three years, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where Burton now serves as director.

Miranda Inscho, visitor experience coordinator in ticketing at the Wex and a full-time employee of four years, said that prior to engaging in talks with her co-workers, she believed unions to be exclusive to blue-collar workers. “It’s not in the front of your mind, like, oh yeah, the art folks are unionizing,” Inscho said. “I think having a wave of other cultural institutions having the same ideas really made it like, oh, this is something we can do. This is something we should be doing.”

The decision by Wex employees to take steps toward unionization has been cheered by filmmakers Reichert and Bognar, who together have an extensive history with the arts institute. “Julia and I have been going to the Wexner Center as patrons, moviegoers, as members and sometimes even as guest artists basically since the Wexner Center opened,” Bognar said. “It’s really great that they’re doing it, and of course we hope that a forward-thinking institution like Ohio State will recognize this is a good thing and not mount some big campaign against it.”

More:50 years in, filmmaker Julia Reichert is still genuinely curious

Recent moves made by Wexner workers also caught the attention of David Green, who served as president of UAW Local 1112 in Lordstown at the time GM unallocated the plant, and who appeared in a number of the photos taken by Frazier that graced the walls of the Wex in “The Last Cruze.”

“Isn’t that awesome? It takes rain and sun to grow anything, the good and the bad,” Green said by phone from Indiana, where he continues to work for GM. “Obviously, for us to have a plant close, it was a horrible thing to go through, and we had [union] members get divorced, [die by] suicide, and just so many people get displaced. LaToya, in her advocacy, was able to take that emotion and put it into a picture, which is incredible in its own right. And then when I heard about the folks at the Wex wanting to form a union, I was kind of overwhelmed.”

Green said that the months in which Frazier shadowed the Lordstown workers were a blur of tense, high-stakes meetings and phone calls, and traveling to the Wex for the opening reception of “The Last Cruze” brought him back to those anxious days when the union fought tirelessly to keep auto production rolling in the town.

“For me, I was very emotional. I’m looking at these pictures, like, I know these people. That person is dead already. They’re in Missouri. They’re in Texas. Oh, look, you’re in Indiana with me,” Green said. “But it’s chronicled, and now it’s this piece of art that can live on.”

Its existence, Green said, can also lead to these pro-union ideas taking root in unexpected places at unpredictable times, which is precisely what happened at the Wex.

“LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographs are beautiful in themselves, and really capture a lot, but in this exhibition, next to each photograph was a narrative about each person, and a story about Lordstown,” Reber said. “And during the exhibition, LaToya Ruby Frazier said, ‘When this book comes out (The Last Cruze), I want it to be a tool for people who want to start unions in their workplaces.’ … I’d never experienced that kind of exhibit at the Wexner Center, and I thought, if this is at the Wexner Center, leadership is going to be totally down with a union. And maybe they are. I don’t know.”