Minnesota Historical Society employees have won pay raises in the first-ever tentative agreement reached between their new union and the St. Paul-based nonprofit organization.

After about 10 months of negotiating, the two sides reached a tentative agreement this week on a three-year contract that includes, on average, 8% pay raises immediately and a hike in the hourly minimum wage from about $15 to $18, according to the union.

A vote by employees to ratify the agreement has not yet been scheduled. It would become effective immediately if approved.

The 8% pay raises would be followed by 3% raises in July, a 3% raise in 2024 and another 3% raise in 2025. Employees also would get a 2.5% raise every two years for the first 14 years of their employment. The tentative agreement also adds a new benefit of six-week paid parental leave.

Employees at the Historical Society, one of the largest state historical organizations in the United States, unionized in 2021 after more than a third of the workforce was laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's one of the largest nonprofits in Minnesota to unionize and reach a contract agreement, reflecting a national trend among employees at museums and arts organizations who organized during the pandemic.

"We think this brings the wages here more in line with other industries," said Molly Jessup, a program specialist at Mill City Museum in Minneapolis and president of the Historical Society union. "This will be really important for retention and recruitment. The wages were very stagnant for quite a while. This represents a much needed boost to make it possible to work here."

Employees say wages lagged the pay at public libraries and other similar cultural institutions, leading in part to the high turnover there.

Kent Whitworth, CEO of the Historical Society, said in a statement that the tentative agreement is "consistent with our strategic plan, which calls for fair, sustainable market-based compensation for all staff."

The Historical Society, which has about 380 employees, manages 26 museums and historic sites across the state, from Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore to Historic Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities. Unlike most nonprofits, the Historical Society is largely supported by taxpayers, with state funding making up about two-thirds of its budget. About 20% of its budget is earned revenue, including admission fees.

The Historical Society is receiving $23 million this year from the state. Officials are asking the Legislature for an additional $1.5 million next year and $2.5 million more for every year after that, arguing that state funding — which has risen annually by less than 1% in recent years — hasn't kept pace with inflation. Gov. Tim Walz has included the Historical Society's request in his proposed budget.

The Historical Society has been slowly rebuilding its staffing since COVID-related closures early in the pandemic cost the organization $3 million and spurred massive layoffs. The organization remains about 12% below 2019 staffing levels, and revenue and visitor numbers haven't fully rebounded. Memberships have plummeted from 23,000 in 2019 to about 17,000 members now.

As of the end of 2022, Historical Society workers made $18 an hour on average, leaving nearly half of them below the Twin Cities' living wage of $18.20, according to the union. On average, salaried union employees there made $27.65 an hour or about $57,000 a year, below the average Twin Cities hourly wage of $30.76.

Employees at the Walker Art Center unionized in 2020, followed by Historical Society workers in 2021 and the Science Museum of Minnesota this year — all as part of AFSCME Council 5, which represents many state employee unions.

"Across the United States, you're seeing cultural heritage organizations advocating for workers in a new way through unions," Jessup said. "Even though you work at a nonprofit and you're there to serve the community ... it should be a job where you're able to have a livable wage."