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What Happens When Unions Bargain for Social Justice?

Since 2020, labor organizing has grown and spread to new kinds of organizations. In a new study, Yale SOM’s James Baron and Daniel Julius examine the wave of unionization in museums, where workers often bring social-justice concerns to the bargaining table. The lessons they draw can be valuable to any leader of a purpose-driven organization, they argue.

Museum staff picket in front of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

Museum staff picket in front of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts during a one-day strike in 2021.

AP Photo/Josh Reynolds

Striking actors and writers in Hollywood, United Auto Workers, healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente, and others who took to the picket line in 2023 are part of a significant uptick in labor organizing activity. But beyond the increase in the number of workers joining this movement, another, subtler change is afoot as well—a broadening of the types of workers joining in.

“Labor unions, labor movements, and strikes are a manifestation of the post-pandemic scene,” says Daniel Julius, an expert on labor relations and a visiting fellow at Yale SOM, noting that other factors, including a more union-friendly legal environment under the Biden administration, have also helped the union movement grow. “What we’re seeing now is a change in what unions are doing and where they’re being organized.”

With these changes in union activity comes a focus on new concerns, new approaches to negotiation—and new challenges.

Consider art museums: 30 art museums in the U.S. are unionized, as of early 2024—and more than half those unions formed since 2020.

Julius and his colleague James Baron, the William S. Beinecke Professor of Management at Yale SOM, have taken a particular interest in the spread of labor organizing within art museums and other types of mission-driven organizations, like botanical gardens, aquariums, and zoos. In a new paper, co-authored with Jai Abrams, a research assistant at Yale SOM, the team shines a light on the fissures widening between leaders and employees within post-pandemic art museums in the U.S., and offers recommendations to both sides of the table.

However, their intended audience extends beyond museums and other nonprofits, notes Baron.

“Traditional businesses are facing increasing pressures to be mission-driven, and to embrace a purpose that transcends just being commercially viable,” says Baron. “As businesses aspire to have some higher purpose they can leverage to energize their stakeholders, what can they learn from organizations that have been down that path for a long time? We’re studying museums, but I think there are also implications for more traditional business organizations.”

Union organizing among nonprofits has been rare until recently. The collective bargaining processes that have been forged over the course of the 20th century in the United States primarily occurred within the for-profit and public sectors. Though some organizing activity did touch the museum sector in the 1970s—at museums in New York City, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—it didn’t catch fire.

As labor organizing activity has spread within museums and other mission-driven organizations, certain key differences between mission-driven entities and their for-profit counterparts reveal themselves in the bargaining process: their funding models look quite different, as do their workplace cultures, the backgrounds and values of their managers and workers, and the cultural roles the different kinds of organizations play within their communities.

During the upheaval sparked by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, museum staff began to reckon with museums’ missions, how they secured their collections, how those collections ought to be exhibited, and whether museums play a role in perpetuating structural inequality.

Those social concerns have coincided with financial pressures, notes Baron, and are often in tension with them. “Leaders face the conundrum that if they tilt too far toward an emphasis on their financial posture, they are subject to accusations of having abandoned their broader mission of societal betterment,” he says. “On the other hand, highlighting the broader mission can raise expectations even further among external and internal stakeholders and can impose additional resource burdens on the enterprises at a time when they are already beleaguered.”

Museum leaders are left to walk a very narrow line, the researchers write: “In these fluid and disruptive times, the position of museum executive has become exceedingly challenging.”

With that environment in mind, Baron and Julius focused their project on leadership, conducting interviews with roughly 70 museum directors from small, medium, and large organizations around the United States. In developing their questions, the researchers worked closely with the American Alliance of Museums.

“What we were interested in is, how do these issues impinge upon executive leadership?” says Julius. “And what do executives do in order to mitigate these tensions, to manage in a turbulent environment, and at the same time stay true to their mission?”

In their conversations, one of the central themes they noticed was a rise in what they call “social unionism”—that is, collective bargaining with a strong social-justice orientation. Within the museum environment, such activity typically takes the form of efforts to correct for historical harms like racism, sexism, economic inequality, and other injustices.

“Social justice approaches sometimes conflict with pragmatic business unionism, which leverages organizational hierarchy and discipline to negotiate agreements,” the researchers write.

They found that certain conditions can predict the extent to which a social-justice perspective is likely to shape negotiations—like whether a labor agreement is a first-time agreement, which can “offer parties a chance to include new and novel issues, such as social justice concerns,” they write, or the length of tenure of the workers involved (newer union workers tend to be more interested in social-justice issues, they found).

The injection of social-justice issues into the negotiation process brings challenges for unions as well as management, Julius points out. Those issues help mobilize new union members at the organizational stage but often fade from the conversation at the negotiating table, when traditional issues like wages, hours, and working conditions come to the fore. “We found that social-justice issues are being used very effectively by unions organizing these employees. The tension occurs when the actual management and business aspects of the relationship have to be addressed.”

Among the researchers’ central recommendations for all parties involved in labor discussions was the imperative to “avoid reinventing the wheel,” says Julius.

“If you approach bargaining on either side with the idea that, ‘We’re going to do this without paying attention to what’s worked in the past,’ it’s not going to be effective,” Julius says. Organizational leaders and union members should understand the history of labor relations “and use some of the protocols that have worked for 75 years.”

Also important is understanding that leadership skills need to evolve to keep pace with the changing demands of the museum setting.

“Leadership itself is so multidimensional today in the environment that we’re living in, and leaders really need to recast how they approach the organization,” Julius says. “They have to find a way to engage in consultative, shared decision-making, and at the same time preserve certain prerogatives.”

The research team plans to continue working with groups like the American Alliance of Museums to help construct leadership development resources and support the leaders who need help navigating these issues.

“One of the things that became clear is that the professional association is grappling mightily with these issues, including trying to construct leadership development opportunities for people in this space to help them cope with these challenges,” Baron says. “They saw our study as a useful way of helping frame their thinking about how such leadership development opportunities ought to be designed.”

Department: Research