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Workers at Oakland’s Creative Growth Form a Union

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Smiling person in blue sweatshirt uses a button-maker
Creative Growth one-on-one facilitator Soph Alvarez cuts out designs for Creative Growth United pins at Art Hazelwood’s studio in Richmond, California on March 23, 2024. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Only four months in, 2024 is turning into a banner year for organizing in the Bay Area arts world. Just weeks after OMCA Workers United received voluntary recognition of their union from the Oakland Museum of California, staff at the Oakland arts center Creative Growth are asking for the same.

Creative Growth United, also affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 57, would cover an estimated 34 workers, including art facilitators and instructors, program coordinators, gallery staff and other direct-service providers. The union would represent around 85% of Creative Growth employees.

Founded 50 years ago, Creative Growth was created by Elias Katz and Florence Ludins-Katz to support artists with disabilities, many of them newly deinstitutionalized from California hospitals. Today, the nonprofit is the city’s second-largest arts organization, working with over 140 artists in a variety of media; providing artistic support, materials and space; mounting exhibitions; and facilitating both loans and sales.

The union delivered their letter by email to Interim Executive Director Tom di Maria and the Creative Growth Board of Trustees on Tuesday morning, requesting voluntary recognition. “I want to express our positive stance towards our staff’s desire to form a union,” di Maria wrote in an email to KQED. “We learned of this development just hours ago and have already reached out to the union to initiate a conversation. We are currently awaiting their response. I believe that this step reflects our collective commitment to fostering an open, respectful, and supportive work environment.”

Hand holding red hair dryer over navy shirt with hand drawn logo
Creative Growth’s Jim McAuley dries a screen-printed Creative Growth United shirt during a pre-announcement print party. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

In December 2023, 34 staff members signed a letter to Creative Growth expressing concern over the organization’s hiring practices. “Most recently, a management position was created and filled without our being aware of any outreach or equitable process, or even the fact that this position existed,” the letter reads, warning of the pitfalls of hiring friends, partners or people from “our usual circles.”

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Creative Growth’s previous executive director, Ginger Shulick Porcella, left in January 2024, after just a year in the position.

Ariel Cooper, who has worked at Creative Growth for just over a year, was one of the first people to join the organizing effort. “I had only been working there for a few months, but it was pretty clear that there was a lot of chaos,” she says. “There had been a lot of turnover at the managerial and directorial level over the last several years.”

Among the issues the union will bring to the bargaining table are “more equitable hiring and pay practices” and standardized benefits, today’s letter states.

“So much of hiring stems from volunteering — so, free labor — and really low-paid substituting,” says Soph Alvarez, who speaks from direct experience of this path to full-time employment. “Either you have to sacrifice your financial stability, or you simply just have the means, and it changes the demographics of who can work there.”

two people lean over screen as one of them pulls ink down in busy shop
Creative Growth’s Steph Kudisch, center, demonstrates screen printing to Daisy Jaberi, right, as Creative Growth United members gear up for the announcement of their union. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

At stake, Alvarez says, is Creative Growth’s ability to represent the diversity of Oakland’s community and its artists.

Raising wages, both Alvarez and Cooper note, can also create stability for the artists, who form close bonds with instructors and facilitators. “Turnover really impacts the artists,” Alvarez says. “It can be really dysregulating, and it can really shake them up when people leave.”

In addition to tangible points like staff and artist representation on the board, the union aims to negotiate based on the principles of disability justice; the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement; and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

Creative Growth workers recently joined staff at Richmond’s NIAD (Nurturing Independence through Artistic Development) and San Francisco’s Creativity Explored to form Progressive Art Studio Staff for a Free Palestine (PASS), which calls for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

Red and purple buttons in a pile
Freshly made Creative Growth United pins sit on a table at Art Hazelwood’s studio in Richmond. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

The union announcement comes at a high profile time for the organization. Creative Growth: The House That Art Built, opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on April 6, along with a mural by Creative Growth artist William Scott. Last fall, SFMOMA announced the acquisition of over 100 works by artists associated with Creative Growth in an “unprecedented partnership.”

Union members will hold a “solidarity rally” outside the museum during the April 6 opening, distributing “We Support Creative Growth United” pins and other symbols of support.

“It’s really important for us to recognize the achievement that Creative Growth has been around for 50 years,” Alvarez says. “Hopefully through this union, we can make it last another 50.”

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