US museums even see the rise of the unions as a collapse of the labor movement

Carpenters and security guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art had long been union members when, in 2020, workers from departments across the museum — curators, restorers, educators, and librarians — voted to create one of the largest museum unions in the country, numbering 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, part of a wave of union organizing efforts at nearly two dozen art institutions where workers worked created new tariff units in the last three years.

Many of the workers who have recently joined unions come from the curatorial, administrative and educational staff – clerical workers who have often not previously been represented by unions.

The surge in organizing has even spawned a podcast, Art and Labor, whose producers say they advocate fair labor practices for artists, assistants, manufacturers, faculty, interns, registrars, janitors, writers, editors, curators, guards and… employ performers, and anyone who works for arts and cultural institutions.”

And it comes, surprisingly, at a time when national union membership rates are at historic lows, significantly lower than in the 1950s, when more than a third of American workers were part of a union. Last year, workers’ union membership rate was 10.3 percent, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So why are museums the outliers in an otherwise shriveled national labor movement?

Organizers say their efforts to persuade arts workers to unionize have been fueled by rising frustration over the pay gap between museum workers and managers, and that the layoffs caused by the pandemic are raising concerns from some workers asking for better pay and Looking for job security, only strengthened.

“Museum employees realized that staff policies were often Byzantine when it came to pay and benefits,” said Tom Juravich, a professor who studies labor movements 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 unionized in 2020, said the labor effort is part of a larger push for change at institutions, which are also being urged to diversify their workforces and offer a broader range of art.

“Union building has emerged as a way through which employees seek to effect institutional change,” Ceruti said. “Most museum leaders share the same goals as our staff organizers: to make museums places that both reflect and inspire our constituencies.”

Indeed, some museums have accused hypocrisy in promoting progressivism in their art exhibitions and introducing new diversity policies in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020, while questioning workers’ efforts to achieve better wages and working conditions.

“There’s a residue of elite sensibility,” said Laura Raicovich, the former director of the Queens Museum, who recently wrote a book on why cultural institutions have become a central part of political debates about diversity and equity. “Museum curators have been trained to view unions as organizations that ignore the bigger picture.”

Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110, a chapter of the United Automobile Workers Union that represents 1,500 workers from nearly 20 cultural institutions, said the spread of the labor movement to a broader group of museum workers originated in the early 1970s, when a Organization formed called the Professional and Administrative Staff Association of the Museum of Modern Art, also known as PASTA, began picketing.

It was announced at the time as the first self-organized association of professionals in a privately financed museum. Organizers complained about mismanaged and underpaid staff, leading to a strike in 1971 and another in 1973 that made the cover of Artforum magazine and popularized calls for transparency from museum administrators that are still being repeated today.

“There used to be this narrative from museum management that workers should be very privileged,” Rosenstein said. “You worked for Prestige. Your expectations should be 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 salary transparency chart in 2019. The New Museum staff began organizing around this time and began comparing their wages to executive pay disclosed in the financial reports that museums and other non-profit organizations are required to publish.

“It was outrageous 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 to unionize to organize.

Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum, previously said that “the staff and board are united in our goals and values ​​and we have accomplished so much through our collaboration.”

A later agreed contract specified minimum salaries ranging from $46,000 to $68,500, as well as increased paid time off and reduced employee contributions to health care costs. Unionization at the New Museum helped pave the way for organizers demanding wage inequality at institutions like the Guggenheim and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Opinion polls of American workers suggest unions are more popular than ever. A 2018 study found that 48 percent of non-union workers would join a union if given the opportunity. And the new work organization is evident on college campuses, in Amazon warehouses, and at Starbucks locations.

Although organizational efforts have been successful in many museums, agreement on contract terms has not always been quick. Museums have said millions of dollars in lost revenue during the pandemic shutdowns have impacted their ability to close long-term deals.

In November, nearly a year after voting to organize, more than 100 workers at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts picketed outside their institution to attract the attention of museum directors who have yet to agree to a contract. More than two years after the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art voluntarily recognized its workers’ union, organizers too are awaiting a deal and have complained that officials have rejected their proposals for higher wages and other benefits. And at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, too, organizers are locked in negotiations nearly 18 months after it was unionized.

“I naively thought that you win an election and most of the work is done,” said Adam Rizzo, president of the Philadelphia Museums Union, “but the work becomes more difficult when you negotiate with management and continue to do the weekly outreach.”

Norman Keyes, a spokesman for the museum in Philadelphia, said the institution is “committed to achieving a collective bargaining agreement that achieves the best outcome for our employees while preserving the museum for generations to come.” Amy Hood, a spokeswoman for LA MOCA, said her museum is “close to finalizing a favorable agreement.”

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, released a statement that said, in part, “We continue productive dialogue with the union and look forward to reaching an initial collective agreement.”

Still, some workers in the museum industry have claimed that their employers stall negotiations to demoralize their bargaining units; others go further, accusing officials of retaliating against employees who support unionization.

Workers involved in unionizing at the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History have argued that they received negative performance reviews because of their union involvement.

In Chicago, organizers filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the institution on behalf of a worker with the National Labor Relations Board.

Katie Rahn, a spokeswoman for the Art Institute, said it could not respond to the allegations of retaliation because of a policy that respects the privacy of staff matters. “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.

Museum of Natural History anthropologist Jacklyn Grace Lacey said she was fired after she organized to expand union membership of District Council 37, which has two union shops at the museum, one representing the guards and the other clerks . These shops together have about 250 members; District Council 37 is working on adding a third eatery that could add dozens of employees with titles such as curator and scientist to the union’s ranks. Last week, the union filed an arbitration case with the museum over Lacey’s dismissal.

Anne Canty, a spokeswoman for the museum, said in a statement, “The museum respects the right of our employees to choose whether to vote to form a union, and we hear many viewpoints from employees as they educate themselves on the issue.” Statement added that “Jacklyn Lacey’s resignation is entirely independent of current union organizing efforts”.

Many museum workers who have tied their future to collective organizing say they are optimistic unions will protect them in an uncertain world.

“We want to bring justice to our contract,” said Sheila Majumdar, editor and union organizer at the Art Institute of Chicago, which plans its first negotiation meeting in the spring.

“We have moved further away from the myth of the cultural worker who is only grateful to have a job in this sector,” she explained, adding that younger workers understand their value better. “We are the ones who make museums.”

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