US museums see rise in unions even as labor movement crumbles
Philadelphia Museum of Art carpenters and security guards had long been members of a union when in 2020 workers in the museum’s departments – curators, curators, educators and librarians – voted to create one of the largest national 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, part of a wave of organizing efforts in nearly two dozen arts institutions where employees have created new collective bargaining units over the past three years.
Many of the workers who have recently joined unions are drawn from conservation, administrative and education staff – white-collar office workers who often had not previously been represented by bargaining units collective.
Soaring unionization has even spawned a podcast, “Art and Labor,” whose producers say they “advocate fair labor practices for artists, assistants, makers, docents, interns , registrars, janitors, writers, editors, curators, guards, performers, and anyone working for arts and cultural institutions.
And it comes, surprisingly, at a time when national union membership has reached historic lows, down significantly from the 1950s, when more than a third of American workers were part of a bargaining unit. collective. Last year, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers’ union membership rate was 10.3%.
So why are museums the outliers of an otherwise diminished national labor movement?
Organizers say their efforts to convince white-collar workers in the arts to unionize have been fueled by growing frustration over the pay gap between museum workers and executives, and that the pandemic layoffs have only increase the concerns of some employees seeking better wages and job security.
“Museum workers have realized that human resource policies in terms of compensation and benefits are often byzantine,” 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, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which unionized in 2020, said the workforce efforts are part of a bigger push for change at institutions that are also being asked to diversify. their workforce and to showcase a wider range of art. .
“Organizing emerged as a way for staff to try to influence institutional change,” Ceruti said. “Most museum leaders share the same goals as our organizers: to make museums places that both reflect and inspire our constituents. »
Indeed, some have accused museums of being hypocritical when championing progressivism in their art exhibits and adopting new diversity policies in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests while defying workers’ efforts to seek out better wages and conditions.
“There’s a residue of elite sensibilities,” said Laura Raicovich, the former director of the Queens Museum, who recently wrote a book about why cultural institutions have become central to political debates about diversity. and fairness. “Museum directors have been trained to see unions as organizations that don’t take into account the big picture.
Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, a branch of the United Automobile Workers union that represents 1,500 staff at nearly 20 cultural institutions, said expanding the labor movement to a broader set of museum workers is originated in the early 1970s when an organization called the Association of Professional and Administrative Staff of the Museum of Modern Art, also known as PASTA, began picketing.
It was advertised at the time as the first self-organized union of professional employees at a privately funded museum. Organizers complained that staff were poorly managed and underpaid, leading to a strike in 1971 and then another in 1973 that graced the cover of Artforum magazine and popularized demands for transparency from board directors. museums that still echo today.
“There used to be this narrative from museum management that the workers were supposed to be very privileged,” Rosenstein said. “You were working for prestige. Your expectations were meant to 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 in 2019 began anonymously sharing their salaries via a job sheet. online calculation on salary transparency. New Museum employees began to organize around this time and began comparing their salaries to the executive salaries disclosed in the financial reports that museums and other nonprofit organizations are required to publish.
“It was blatant at the New Museum when we first started organizing and some of my colleagues were making around $35,000 a year,” said Dana Kopel, a former museum employee who now helps other nonprofits. to unionize.
Lisa Phillips, Director of the New Museum, has previously said that “staff and board are united around our purpose and values and we have achieved so much working together”.
A contract then established minimum wages ranging from $46,000 to $68,500, as well as increased vacation pay and reduced employee contributions to health care costs. Unionization at the New Museum paved the way for organizers who spoke out against pay gaps at institutions like the Guggenheim and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Opinion polls of American workers suggest unions are more popular than they have been, with a 2018 study claiming that 48% of non-union employees would join a union if given the chance . And the new organization of work is evident on college campuses, Amazon warehouses and Starbucks locations.
Although organizational efforts in many museums have been successful, agreement on contract terms has not always been swift. Museums have said multimillion-dollar revenue losses during pandemic closures have hampered their ability to secure long-term deals.
So nearly a year after voting to unionize, more than 100 workers at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts formed a picket line outside their institution in November to draw the attention of museum officials who didn’t not yet accepted a contract. More than two years after the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles voluntarily recognized its employee union, organizers are also awaiting a contract and have complained that officials have rejected their offers for higher salaries and other benefits. And at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, organizers are also locked in negotiations nearly 18 months after it was unionized.
“I naively thought you won an election and most of the work was done,” said Adam Rizzo, the Philadelphia museum union president, “But the work gets harder as you negotiate with management and keep going. doing weekly outreach.”
Norman Keyes, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia museum, said the institution is “committed to reaching a collective bargaining agreement that achieves the best results for our staff while supporting the museum for generations to come.” . LA MOCA spokeswoman Amy Hood said her museum was “close to finalizing a favorable agreement.”
Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts released a statement that said 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 claimed that their employers block negotiations to demoralize their bargaining units; others have gone further, accusing managers of retaliation against staff members who support unionization.
Workers involved in labor organizing at the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History argued that they had received negative performance reviews as a result of their labor advocacy.
In Chicago, organizers filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the institution on behalf of a worker.
Katie Rahn, spokesperson for the Art Institute, said it could not respond to allegations of retaliation because there is a policy of respecting the confidentiality of personal matters. “We look forward to working with the union throughout the collective bargaining process towards an agreement that meets the needs of all parties,” she said.
At the Natural History Museum, an anthropologist, Jacklyn Grace Lacey, said she was fired after organizing to expand union membership in District 37 Council, which has two union shops at the museum, one representing the guards and the other the office workers. These shops have about 250 members; District 37 Council is working to add a third local that could include dozens of employees in union ranks with titles like curator and scientist. Last week, the union filed for arbitration with the museum regarding Lacey’s dismissal.
Anne Canty, spokesperson for the museum, said in a statement that “the museum respects the right of our staff to decide whether or not to vote to unionize, and we hear many views from staff as they inform on this issue. The statement added that “the dismissal of Jacklyn Lacey is entirely separate from the current organizing effort.”
Many museum workers who have linked their future to collective organizing say they are optimistic that unions will protect them in an uncertain world.
“We want equity built into our contract,” said Sheila Majumdar, editor and labor organizer at the Art Institute of Chicago, which plans to hold its first bargaining meeting in the spring.
“We have moved away from the myth of the cultural worker simply grateful to have a job in this sector,” she explained, adding that young workers have a better understanding of their value. “We are the ones who make the museums.