The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s carpenters and security guards were longtime unionized when in 2020, employees from departments across the museum — curators, conservators, educators and librarians — voted to form one of the nation’s largest museum unions. with nearly 250 members.
Workers at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles soon formed their own unions as part of a wave of labor organization efforts at nearly two dozen art institutions where workers established new collective bargaining units over the past three years.
Many of the workers who have recently joined a union come from the board of trustees, administration and teaching staff – office workers who often had not previously been represented by collective bargaining units.
The wave of organizing has even spawned a podcast, “Art and Labour,” whose producers say they “advance fair labor practices for artists, assistants, manufacturers, educators, interns, registrars, janitors, writers, editors, curators, security guards.” , artists , and anyone who works for art and cultural institutions.”
And it comes, surprisingly, at a time when national union membership reached historic lows, significantly lower than in the 1950s, when more than a third of American workers were part of a collective bargaining unit. According to the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor union membership rate was 10.3 percent last year.
So why are museums the outliers in an more eroded national labor movement?
Organizers say their efforts to convince art workers to join a union have been fueled by growing frustration over the pay gap between museum workers and executives, and that pandemic layoffs have only heightened the concerns of some workers seeking better jobs. wages and job security.
“Museum workers realized that payroll policies on wages and benefits were often Byzantine,” said Tom Juravich, a professor of labor movement research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They realized they were being treated more like servants of the elite.”
Mary Ceruti, the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which united in 2020, said labor efforts are part of a larger drive for change at institutions that are also being asked to diversify their workforces and offer a wider variety of art.
“Unifying unions has emerged as one way employees try to influence institutional change,” Ceruti said. “Most museum leaders share the same goals as our staff organizers: to create museums that reflect and inspire our supporters.”
Some have even accused museums of being hypocritical in defending progressivism in their art exhibitions and embracing new diversity policies in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests, while challenging workers’ efforts to seek better wages and conditions.
“There’s a residue of elite sensitivity,” said Laura Raicovich, former director of the Queens Museum, who recently wrote a book about why cultural institutions have come to be at the center of political debates about diversity and justice. “Museum directors are trained to see unions as organizations that don’t consider the bigger picture.”
Maida Rosenstein, the chairman of Local 2110, a branch of the United Automobile Workers union that represents 1,500 employees of nearly 20 cultural institutions, said the labor movement’s expansion to a larger group of museum workers began in the early 1970s when an organization called the Professional and Administrative Staff Association of the Museum of Modern Art, also known as PASTA, started with pickets.
It was announced at the time as the first self-organized union of professional employees of a privately funded museum. Organizers complained that staff were poorly managed and underpaid, leading to a strike in 1971 and a strike in 1973 that made the cover of Artforum magazine and popularized museum administrators’ demands for transparency, which still resonate today. .
“There used to be a museum management story that workers were considered very privileged,” Rosenstein said. “You worked for prestige. Your expectations should have been low.”
PASTA didn’t immediately spark a labor movement in the art world, but it became a touchstone 50 years later when more than 3,000 cultural workers began sharing their salaries anonymously via an online payroll transparency spreadsheet in 2019. About this time, New Museum employees began to organize and compare their wages to executive salaries reported in the financial reports that museums and other nonprofit organizations are required to publish.
“It was huge at the New Museum when we started organizing and some of my colleagues were making about $35,000 a year,” said Dana Kopel, a former museum employee who now helps other nonprofits unionize.
Lisa Phillips, the director of New Museum, has previously said that “staff and governance are united around our purpose and values and that we have achieved so much by working together.”
A contract later set minimum salaries ranging from $46,000 to $68,500, in addition to increased paid time off and reduced employee contributions to health care costs. Unionization at the New Museum paved the way for organizers who invoked wage differentials at institutions like the Guggenheim and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Opinion polls of U.S. workers suggest that unions are more popular than they were, with a 2018 survey claiming that 48 percent of non-union workers would join a union if given the chance. And new work organization is evident on college campuses, Amazon warehouses and Starbucks locations.
While organizing efforts at many museums have been successful, agreement on contract terms has not always been quick. Museums have said the multimillion-dollar revenue loss during the pandemic shutdowns has hampered their ability to close long-term deals.
So nearly a year after voting to join a union, more than 100 employees at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts formed a picket line outside their institution in November to draw the attention of museum leaders who have not yet signed a contract. More than two years after the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, voluntarily recognized its workers’ union, organizers are also waiting for a contract and have complained that officials were rejecting their proposals for higher wages and other benefits. And at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, organizers are also engaged in negotiations nearly 18 months after the union was formed.
“I naively thought you win an election and most of the work gets done,” said Adam Rizzo, the Philadelphia Museum union president, “But the job gets harder as you negotiate with management and continue the weekly outreach. “
Norman Keyes, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Museum, said the institution is “committed to achieving a collective bargaining agreement that will deliver the best results for our staff while preserving the museum for generations to come.” Amy Hood, a spokeswoman for LA MOCA, said her museum is “close to finalizing a favorable deal.”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston released a statement saying, in part, “We are continuing a productive dialogue with the union and look forward to reaching an inaugural collective bargaining agreement.”
Nevertheless, some museum industry workers have argued that their employers are delaying negotiations in order to demoralize their bargaining units; others have gone on to accuse officials of retaliating against employees who support unionization.
Workers involved in union organizing at the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History have argued that they have received negative performance reviews because of their union legal practice.
In Chicago, organizers on behalf of an employee filed a complaint about unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board against the institution.
Katie Rahn, a spokeswoman for the Art Institute, said it was unable to respond to the allegations of retaliation because it has a policy of respecting the privacy of human resources. “We look forward to working with the union through the collective bargaining process towards an agreement that meets the needs of all parties,” she said.
At the Museum of Natural History, an anthropologist, Jacklyn Grace Lacey, said she was fired after organizing to expand union membership in District Council 37, which has two union shops in the museum, one representing security guards and another representing servants represent. These stores together comprise about 250 members; District Council 37 is working to add a third local that could contain dozens of workers to the union ranks with titles such as curator and scientist. Last week, the union filed for arbitration with the museum over Lacey’s firing.
Anne Canty, a spokeswoman for the museum, said in a statement: “The museum respects the right of our staff to decide whether or not to vote for a union, and we hear many views from staff as they educate themselves about this. matter.” The statement added that “Jacklyn Lacey’s termination is completely unrelated to the union’s current organizational efforts.”
Many museum employees who have linked their future to collective organizing say they are optimistic that unions will protect them in an uncertain world.
“We want stock included in our contract,” said Sheila Majumdar, an editor and union organizer at the Art Institute of Chicago, which plans to hold its first negotiating meeting in the spring.
“We are further removed from the myth that the culture worker is just thankful to have a job in this industry,” she explains, adding that younger workers better understand their value. “We are the ones who make museums.”