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Inside ‘The Art of Organizing: The Boston Museum of Fine Arts Union Drive’

November 10, 2020

By Joe Maniscalco

“The Art of Organizing: The Boston Museum of Fine Arts Union Drive” is a vital piece of late 20th century Labor history that has much to teach today’s young organizers. 

New York, NY – In the early 1990’s, an arcane prohibition held over from an era of strikebreaking Pinkertons meant that security guards at the prestigious Boston Museum of Fine Arts were still barred from unionizing underneath the AFL-CIO umbrella. 

Although low-paying, the museum job and its stated mission of sharing high culture with the public, elicited a fierce sense of devotion among the diverse group of blue collar workers who dutifully patrolled the institution’s hallowed galleries each day. Much like today’s frontline workers, however, that profound sense of dedication that the guards practiced as a matter of course, was not something the profit-driven trustees at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were at all interested in reciprocating. 

Instead, the newly-installed corporatists at the venerable New England museum eliminated worker benefits, scrambled work assignments, prohibited bathroom breaks and even took away their chairs.

“The Art of Organizing: The Boston Museum of Fine Arts Union Drive,” available now through Hardball Press, is former Boston Museum of Fine Arts security guard and Head Shop Steward Michael Raysson’s intimate chronicle of how he and his co-workers successfully bucked the system and organized themselves — first with the United Plant Guard Workers of America [UPGWA] — then on their own as MISU — Museum Independent Security Union. 

“In the end it’s not working the legal system that gave us a win,” Rayson writes. “It was that they were never going to get anything from us without a fight, even if we lost.”

Guards at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts helped pioneer creative picketing.

The tenacious spirit of defiance that enabled the Boston Museum of Fine Arts guards to face down both the craven corporate profiteers who had taken over the venerable institution they adored, as well as the stultified union heads who Raysson and his comrades believed had grown too fat and cozy with management to be of any use — still reverberates decades later amidst the cacophony of today’s increasingly desperate Labor struggle.

“I believe that the future of organizing will come at the grassroots level, that is from the workers in the workplace organizing themselves,” Raysson recently told me. “Not only is it the most empowering place to come from — it is also where the organizers and workers can learn the most at a first-hand level. Then they, in turn, can pass it on to others, hopefully in a long line.”

Raysson’s own experience battling for worker rights at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts taught him that “corporations have more fear of giving a voice and power to workers, and thereby losing some of their control, than giving workers higher wages and better benefits.”

Another time-honored organizing axiom: “Listening or not listening could be the difference between winning and losing.”

Readers of Raysson’s warm-hearted recollections of life-in-the-trenches will surely identify with the frigid picket lines, super-charged bargaining sessions, tireless leafletting, and relentlessly creative organizing that ultimately won the Boston Museum of Fine Arts guards true union representation and fair contracts.

“This is my own experience and that of others who were around me, so I can express it with a full heart,” Raysson says. “I am hopeful that we will soon see a re-blossoming of the Labor Movement.”

November 10, 2020

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