Sonoma Valley Museum of Art hires ‘union-busting’ law firm, say employees
Efforts by staff of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art to form an employees union are in limbo this week, after a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hit a snag when parties couldn’t agree on the size of the museum’s commerce, according to a union representative.
The NLRB has a minimum commerce limit of $1 million per year, under which it won’t claim jurisdiction over an organization, according to Ashley Mates, of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which is helping SVMA staff organize. A disagreement about whether a nonprofit’s donations count toward that $1 million threshold has stalled the petition process, said Mates. They’re now awaiting a ruling by the NLRB which will determine whether SVMA has sufficient commerce for the Labor Relations Board to hold any authority in unionizing the staff at the museum at 551 Broadway.
Mates is confident the NLRB will find in favor of their petition, describing the donation-as-commerce question as “settled law.”
“We anticipate that the board is going to rule that this is ridiculous,” Mates told the Index-Tribune this week. “But we don’t know how long that’s going to take.”
Mates said the argument about donations is “typical interference” from SVMA’s legal council in the matter — the national firm Jackson Lewis — which she and the museum employees describe as a “union-busting” law firm. The firm’s website includes an article entitled “Remaining Union Free.”
In an April 28 letter to supporters, the organizing SVMA employees, who call their group Sonoma Cultural Workers United, described themselves as “saddened” to learn the museum had retained Jackson Lewis as its legal council.
“This well-known firm provides legal advice on how to keep workplaces ‘union-free’ and undermine National Labor Relations Board elections,” the group said.
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art Executive Director Linda Keaton, however, said the museum retained Jackson Lewis for its expertise in labor law.
“The museum hired knowledgeable counsel with a local presence to make sure it was complying with the law,” Keaton wrote in an email to the Index-Tribune. “Just as the union did.”
In a 2020 article for nonprofit news website, The Conversation, San Francisco State University labor-studies professor John Logan named Jackson Lewis among the top union-avoidance law firms in the country.
It is among the three biggest law firms who “stymie efforts by workers to organize,” Logan wrote in the piece.
In an overview of its services on its website, jacksonlewis.com, the company claims to “help employers develop proactive strategies, strong policies and business-oriented solutions to cultivate high-functioning workforces that are engaged, stable and diverse, and share our clients' goals to emphasize inclusivity and respect for the contribution of every employee.”
Efforts to organize at the museum began in early April, when several staff members announced plans to form a union of museum employees with the goal of creating a “more egalitarian workplace” by establishing transparent policies, holding management accountable to staff concerns and embedding diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion in the museum’s public and private practices. The announcement was signed by the CWU Organizing Committee, which listed members Diane Egger-Bovet, Patricia Liverman, Amelia Martinez, Kathy McHoes and Sarah Parker.
The museum employs 19 staff and the group says it has a “super majority” support for the union.
The group gave the museum until April 8 to voluntarily recognize the union, or it would appeal to the NLRB for an election, voted upon by museum staff. A simple majority would allow NRLB to certify the union.
In a response, the museum issued its own announcement, declining to recognize the union, but saying: “We respect our employees’ right to engage in union activity under the National Labor Relations Act. We also respect our employees’ right to make the decision about whether or not they choose to be represented by a union.”
Continued the response: “We believe our employees deserve the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding the Union and what it may mean for our workplace. If our employees choose union representation following an NLRB election, SVMA will respect that decision.”
Mates told the Index-Tribune this week she felt the museum isn’t standing behind its promise to not interfere in the appeal to NLRB and respect the outcome of an election.
“This is clearly interference,” said Mates. “(Hiring Jackson Lewis) goes beyond run-of-the-mill interference.
Email Jason Walsh at Jason.firstname.lastname@example.org.