Shedd Aquarium employees launch union drive

Employees at the Shedd Aquarium announced plans to unionize Thursday, the latest in a series of unionization campaigns at Chicago’s prominent cultural institutions in recent years.

In a public letter, 60 people — or about 20% of union-eligible employees at the aquarium — said they’ve faced work-life imbalance, high staff turnover, financial struggles and a lack of communication from management, with “little tangible response.” They said these issues have led to burnout, low morale and decreased animal welfare.

“Together in our union, we can bring to light and work to resolve these inequities in order to better our own lives and — very importantly — those of the animals we work to protect and uplift,” the letter said.

The employees eventually plan to file for a union election with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which since 2022 has unionized workers at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute and its affiliated school, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park and the Newberry Library, a research library on the Near North Side. Non-tenure-track faculty members at the School of the Art Institute have also unionized with AFSCME. Art Institute staffers ratified their first contract in August.

An aquarium spokesperson said in a statement Thursday that they’re aware of the unionization effort and “respect the rights of our employees to educate themselves on the issue of unionization and to explore their options freely.”

“We are proud of the unique, employee-focused culture we have developed at Shedd, and we are committed, as always, to open, constructive dialogue with staff,” the statement said.

According to its website, Shedd Aquarium welcomes more than 2 million guests each year, and works to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife. The aquarium has also embarked on a $500 million project ahead of its 100th anniversary in 2030, which includes new exhibits and programs.

As a penguin and otter trainer, Michelle Nastasowski spends her shifts feeding animals, maintaining their habitats and keeping meticulous records, something she said is a “really fun job.” But she said there’s often a harmful assumption in the industry that pay and benefits take the form of “penguin cuddles” or experience, which isn’t conducive to living in a city like Chicago.

When Nastasowski started working at Shedd eight years ago, she said she made $12.50 an hour with a bachelor’s degree. While pay has improved since then, she said it still doesn’t properly reflect employees’ level of education.

“The majority of us do have families,” she said, adding that many of her co-workers are unable to afford living on their own. “A lot of us have a lot of other financial responsibilities as well, and it can be a struggle.”

Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for AFSCME 31, said employees in the animal care department, often with specialized skills and education, are typically paid about $25 to $27 an hour. Employees in the guest relations department — the largest in the aquarium — make $17 to $18 an hour.

“That’s just not sustainable from an institution that has the resources to do better by their employees,” Lindall said. “It’s not adequate.”

Nastasowski said she’s also noticed a disconnect between upper management and front-line staff, adding that she’s felt a power imbalance in decisions that directly affect her life. She cited a recent change limiting sick time as an example.

“This is really a passionate field, and so it’s my strong belief that increasing the welfare of our employees and our co-workers will directly impact the welfare of the animals,” she said. “If you have happy staff, you have less turnover, and you have a lot more consistency for those animals.”

If the union campaign were successful, the bargaining union would include about 300 employees, including in the animal care, learning and community, guest relations and facilities departments. They are organizing under the name Shedd Workers United.

“Shedd employees care deeply about their work, the aquarium, every creature that lives there and everyone who visits. We’re proud to include them in our union family and help them use their voice,” AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said in a news release. “We call on Shedd leadership to respect workers’ right to organize free from management interference.”

In the letter, aquarium employees said they would also like to strengthen diversity, equity and accessibility and inclusion efforts through a union. A union would “democratize the decision-making process that affects us, our families and the animals we care for,” the letter said.

Shedd Aquarium employees can file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board when 30% or more of prospective bargaining unit members have signed union authorization cards. Staff can seek voluntary recognition from the aquarium if they secure support from a majority of eligible workers.

The Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday became the first Chicago museum to offer voluntary recognition to its staff union with AFSCME Council 31.