In the summer of 2019, Trevor Jones, the director of History Nebraska (formerly the Nebraska State Historical Society), posted a message to social media in response to an upcoming lunchtime meeting between History Nebraska staff and the Nebraska Association of Public Employees (NAPE)/American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 61, the union that represents them. “Don’t spend your noon hour throwing hands and dustin’ it up with communist agitators,” the post read. “Consider instead spending a peaceful hour at ‘Lunch with Trevor.’”
The post was accompanied by a historic photo of the 1934 Loup City Riot, an uprising that occurred when representatives of the American Communist Party, including activist Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, organized a demonstration in solidarity for an anticipated strike by women poultry workers at the Fairmont Creamery Plant in Loup City, Nebraska. Demonstrators clashed with local residents on the Sherman County Courthouse lawn, where a state historical marker commemorates the riot.
“The numbers of the union really swelled after that post,” said Ryan Reed, a former staff member at History Nebraska and a member of NAPE/AFSCME Local 61. “It showed a real disconnect between leadership and rank and file staff.” Jones later apologized.
Workers coming together and building collective power is the foundation of US working life, and the nation's economy. The organized labor movements of the past have led to higher wages, better working hours, and safer conditions, wins that contemporarily benefit almost everyone that goes to work. The history sector—including historical societies, history museums, state historic preservation offices, and other history-adjacent institutions—has recognized the role that labor uprisings, unions, and worker solidarity has played in local, state, and national histories through collection items in libraries and through the identification of historic sites associated with labor history. As workers nationwide are recognizing their collective power, history-based institutions are working to interpret the significance of the labor movement to our understanding of history. Yet, for the workers at the History Nebraska Union, as well as those at the Minnesota Historical Society Union, labor history isn’t in the past, it is the present moment.
Founded in 1849, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) is the largest state history organization in the nation and the oldest cultural institution in the state. Like History Nebraska, MNHS is a large and multifaceted institution. Headquartered in St. Paul, MNHS manages the primary source material housed in the Gale Family Research Library, a collection ranging from maps to manuscripts with an even bigger online footprint that also includes historic newspapers and a people search that includes birth and death records and state census data. MNHS’s conservation and historic preservation divisions provide technical advice as well as grants to historic places and their stewards statewide, while also caring for the historic places the MNHS owns and manages. Twenty-six historic sites across the state are staffed by MNHS, from the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, a nineteenth-century mill, and the Jeffers Petroglyphs in Cottonwood County, a landscape of five thousand carvings of indigenous origin, and one of the oldest continually used sacred sites in the world.
Behind MNHS’s programming and stewardship is a workforce of over five hundred employees, including librarians, historians, educators, conservation staff, and building experts. Staff also includes workers with specialized skills that assist them in interpreting the past, such as costume interpreters at historic sites, or those who work in historic trades, like blacksmithing. It was this group of specialized workers, many of them interfacing directly with the public, that came to find themselves in precarious positions as institutions like the MNHS closed, then reopened, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The big catalyst was the pandemic,” says John Fulton, a Grant Specialist who works at the Minnesota Historical Society and a member of the bargaining team that worked to form the Minnesota Historical Society Union in 2021. “About forty percent of the workforce was laid off, and I think that gelled a lot of things for people that weren’t getting the best pay already.” Salary research by organizers uncovered that eighty-one percent of workers at the Minnesota Historical Society were in the lowest quadrant of their pay range, regardless of years of service. A lack of communication between workers and management regarding how and when MNHS would move forward widened the rift and made unionizing more attractive. “A lot of people who were union minded started speaking to each other,” continues John. “We started having one to one conversations, we gathered personal emails, and started a Slack channel, which was a helpful way to communicate.”
Backed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Minnesota Council 5, the National Labor Relations Board certified the union election in November 2022. Workers organized rallies at the Minnesota History Center throughout the bargaining process, and visited historic sites across the state to discuss how MNHS workers could best be seen and heard as the union developed. The first contract between the Minnesota Historical Society and their union, AFSCME Local 3173 went into effect on May 1, 2023. One of the most substantial contract features was an adjusted pay minimum, providing a boost for front line workers at historic sites, as well as a wage adjustment based on years of seniority. For workers like John Fulton, who began working at MNHS in 1996, this provided a significant pay increase. A second contract feature was paid parental leave for all full- and part-time employees, eliminating the need for workers needing to rely on paid time off or sick leave funds in order for them to be paid during their leave.
Contemporarily, unions are enjoying some of the highest approval ratings in decades. According to a recent Gallup Poll, seventy-one percent of Americans approve of labor unions, up from sixty-seven just a few years earlier. While the labor movement in the United States developed from blue collar workers, today’s labor unions increasingly represent history and cultural workers as well as other creative and technical professions, including architects and designers, and span across both the public and private sector within workplaces of all sizes. In 2022, Bernheimer Architecture, a twenty-two-person firm in New York City, became the first architecture firm in history to unionize, citing a desire for higher wages and more transparency.1 The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, an institution of only nine staff members that preserves and interprets Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Hartford, Connecticut home, unionized in 2021.2
These efforts across sectors that don’t traditionally include unions are undoubtedly boosted by strikes that have made national news. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike, occurring because of poor actor residuals for streaming services and concerns over the use of artificial intelligence, affected not only actors and creators within the film and TV sectors, but the public users of those streaming services. A United Auto Workers (UAW)-led strike experienced widespread support from the public as General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler headed to the picket lines in September 2023, citing wages that had not adjusted for inflation. Workers in the history and culture fields are recognizing their collective power and are being backed by broad social and political support. This shift is an encouraging one for those who have become accustomed to stagnant wages and limited benefits in exchange for doing work that a worker may be passionate about. As more and more history sector workplaces unionize, the “Passion Tax”—the price a worker in history pays in exchange for the privilege of working in the field—might become a thing of the past.
Sarah Marsom, a heritage resource consultant and founder of Dismantle Preservation, advocates for pay and labor equity in the history and cultural work sectors. For Marsom, worker power begins with understanding what employers are willing to offer new hires. Marsom has petitioned for history sector, museum, and historic preservation job boards to require compensation information, and to not allow unpaid internships, a move that has caused organizations like the American Alliance of Museums and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to modify their policies. Marsom has also conducted anonymous salary studies, providing workers with the opportunity to compare compensation and benefits across the public and private sectors. “Our work, in theory, is intrinsically good and has a community benefit, but when we look at our labor practices, they often lack the structures to protect workers.” For historic preservation in particular, Marsom believes that the field would further benefit from compensating boards and advisory committees for their time, both in the public sector and private sector, an adjustment that might lead to fewer cases of burnout and broaden who is able to participate. As museums and history sector institutions work to not only develop programming that tells the full history of underrepresented communities, but also to diversify their workforce, which, according to Marsom, will occur if the field examines how it values labor, and how that labor is compensated. “We are seeing more conversations about what labor could and should look like in these fields,” adds Marsom. “We can’t just talk about shifting work practices. We have to talk about shifting workplaces.”
The author would like to thank John Fulton of the Minnesota Historical Society, Sarah Marsom of Dismantle Preservation, and Ryan Reed for their time and expertise.