COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A lot has happened at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the past year.

Since announcing plans to unionize in March 2022, employees at the center have lent coworkers space heaters and air conditioners, stockpiled high-quality masks, and relied on each other during busy work days. They’ve held events, sought community support and learned from other unions in the state.

It’s been a year of “solidarity building,” said Jo Snyder, a lead organizer and learning and practice programs coordinator at the center. That solidarity culminated last week, when Wex Workers United voted unanimously to unionize, joining the ranks of city, county, non-profit and private sector employees represented by AFSCME Ohio Council 8. 

“We were acting like a union,” Snyder said. “We were taking care of each other and advocating for each other as much as we could, even before we were official.”

Like other employees, Snyder and fellow organizer Miranda Inscho started at the Wexner Center when they were Ohio State University students. Inscho, the patron services coordinator at the center, has worked there for about a decade, and Snyder has been there for six years.

Workplace concerns – particularly regarding management decisions without staff input – bubbled below the surface, Snyder and Inscho said. Coworkers opined about how nice it would be to collectively bargain, but discussions didn’t extend beyond jokes and jabs.

What pushed employees over the edge – and brought tensions to a rapid boil – was Ohio State’s decisions at the center during COVID-19.

Like many places, the Wexner Center for the Arts faced layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts as COVID-19 made in-person events impossible. Snyder and Inscho described last-minute ultimatums given to employees to reduce their pay or hours or lose their job entirely.

Inscho said those public pay reductions highlighted the wage inequality at the center.

“Just having it said to your face, or in front of everybody, and just realizing like, ‘Oh, that’s great. This person is taking a 30% pay cut. That 30% is my entire salary,’” Inscho said.

And as businesses across the state and country grappled with how to resume operations, Snyder and Inscho pointed again to a lack of employee input in the Wexner Center’s COVID-19 protocols, protocols that employees didn’t feel adequately protected them against the highly contagious virus. 

Inscho said front desk workers were expected back during the summer of 2020 – well before any COVID-19 vaccine was developed and just months into the pandemic. As the virus raged on, employees found themselves supplying each other with face masks, with one worker bringing packs of N-95s to the center when the most effective masks were hard to find.

“It just made it all very clear, I think. It took those issues that we already have, that people already have in their workplace – that lack of agency, that lack of having a voice, the decisions really coming top-down – it took all of that and really amplified it during the pandemic,” Snyder said.

Organizing began “in earnest” in fall 2021, Snyder said, with Wex Workers United asking Ohio State for voluntary union recognition in March 2022.

Ohio State did not voluntarily recognize the union. Instead, it hired Columbus-based law firm Porter Wright Morris and Arthur, which represents businesses against the National Labor Relations Board and helps organizations with the “effective management of the collective bargaining process.”

“We represent businesses in all aspects of the union organizing process, from advice and manager training designed to prevent organizing, to representation during election campaigns,” the firm’s website reads. “If a company becomes involved in a union-organizing drive, we can assist with a management communication plan, monitor union activities for misconduct and handle NLRB matters related to bargaining-unit scope, supervisory designations and unfair labor practice charges.”

The Wexner Center for the Arts’ spokesperson referred NBC4 to Ohio State’s communications team for comment. An Ohio State spokesperson confirmed the university hired Porter Wright for “numerous human resource matters,” including during Wex Workers United’s unionization, but said it would be “inappropriate to speculate” whether it will retain the firm for collective bargaining.

“Wexner Center for the Arts staff are integral to the center’s mission, and we are grateful for their many contributions to arts and culture at Ohio State,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We look forward to working with the 29 bargaining unit employees and their union representatives on current and future employment matters.”

Although Snyder laughed that she’s still “speechless” about the union election, she and Inscho said they’re also looking forward to the bargaining process. They both noted that their election win didn’t happen in a vacuum – it comes as workers organize across the state and country, in both the cultural and arts workforce and outside of it. In fact, Wex Workers United relied on other unions, like the union at the Columbus Museum of Art, when organizing among themselves.

“I think it’s really important that we see our work at Wex Workers United as being connected to the broader labor struggles,” Snyder said. “I think that we are very much siblings with people at Amazon and Starbucks and all of these campaigns, big and small, across the entire country and world.”