Tenement Museum. (Photo by: Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Why Do Museums Need Unions?

In New York City and beyond, employees at cultural institutions are joining the union fight for better wages and a seat at the table.

by Eileen Cartter
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Jul 10 2019, 3:13pm

Tenement Museum. (Photo by: Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

On June 25, a crowd assembled outside of the New Museum in Manhattan to support its employees’ union as they endure tense, ongoing talks with the museum’s management to negotiate a contract. Union members and supporters marched parallel to visitors queuing up for opening night of the museum’s summer exhibitions, handing out Day-Glo buttons with slogans such as “HELL, YES! UNION RIGHTS” and “HELL, YES! PAY EQUITY” — a reference to the arched rainbow sculpture by Ugo Rondinone that once adorned the New Museum’s facade.

Demonstrators held up “HONK FOR SUPPORT” signs and, as they drove down Bowery, many taxi, truck, and bus drivers (plus at least one enthusiastic FDNY truck) held down their car horns in solidarity. They know a union when they see one.

The New Museum is one of several cultural institutions in New York City to unionize in 2019, voting in January to join United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, followed by the Tenement Museum in April and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in June, comprising front-facing and development staff, art handlers, curators, and more. Most recently, uptown—just two days after the action at the New Museum—art installers and maintenance workers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum voted to form a union with Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which also reps MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. For all, next steps include the challenge of negotiations.

And while demonstrators outside of the New Museum (many of whom repped fellow unionized institutions) chanted, “Get up, get down, New York is a union town,” this is a movement not limited to New York. Security workers at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum officially voted to unionize on June 18, while workers at the Vancouver Art Gallery rallied to negotiate their contract earlier this year.

We’re in a moment of Big Art-World Workplace Transparency Energy, as workers organize not only concurrently but in solidarity to gain higher wages, improved benefits, job security, and protection against discrimination, as well as the space and freedom to assemble as a union at their workplaces. This current wave of union activity at NYC cultural institutions — surging amid reckonings of funding and decolonization — is reflective of a renewed energy around labor rights nationwide, encompassing teacher strikes and union pleas across digital media, including at GARAGE’s parent company, VICE. Hell, even Silvio Dante is on board.

This mounting interest in unionization across sectors challenges the notion of who should belong in, or could benefit from, a union, and whether museum employees are not, or should not consider themselves, part of the same movement as teachers or taxi drivers or firefighters. Some question why workers in the white-collar art world need unions in the first place.

“People used to say about MoMA workers, ‘Oh, they’re trust-fund babies, they can afford to work for just pocket change,’” says Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110, which also represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the New-York Historical Society, in addition to the three newly joined institutions. Spectators, and, importantly, even museum employers, “expect [workers] to be delighted they’re employed by such prominent institutions and doing such cutting-edge stuff, and that that’s going to be enough to sustain people,” Rosenstein said. “And it isn’t.”

“We used to have an old slogan in our union: ‘You can’t eat prestige.’”

Flyers distributed at New Museum Union demonstration read, “Visitor services and retail employees make $15.50 an hour — just fifty cents above the minimum wage — and haven’t received a raise in nearly three years. Meanwhile, executive salaries at the Museum have increased by roughly 20% each year between 2015 and 2017.” Livable wages remain a primary concern, says Dana Kopel, a senior editor and publications coordinator at the museum and a member of the union organizing committee.

“We want to bring everybody at the museum up to a living wage in New York City, to $51,000 [per year] — and that’s the amount that management told us was a living wage in New York City when they were conducting their anti-union campaign before the election,” Kopel said. “They said this to a room full of people that they were paying far less than that,” adding that many employees work extra jobs on top of full-time positions in order to make ends meet. Union agreements, such as guaranteed annual percent increases rather than, or in addition to, the dangling-carrot promise of a merit-based raise, can help balance ballooning costs of living, from rent to transportation.

“If you work in the arts, there is this sense of sacrifice and martyrdom in what you do,” said Jenny Choi, publications manager at BAM, citing former BAM president Karen Brooks Hopkins’s “BAM is not a job, it’s a crusade” catchphrase. “We all live in this city — we still need to be able to afford to live here.”

According to Ana Torok, curatorial assistant at MoMA and a steward for their union, “there is this expectation that you [have to] sacrifice a certain salary or certain benefits because you’re doing this work that you’re passionate about, because you’re getting to do this work you’ve always dreamed of doing at an institution you’ve always dreamed of working at.”

Rosenstein and other museum workers cited MoMA as an inspiration for the current NYC wave, due its established (if rolling) union and a collective bargaining presence that dates back to the early ’70s. Crediting these “decades of hard-fought negotiations,” Torok hadn’t held a union-affiliated position prior to joining MoMA in early 2017 and becoming part of MoMA Local 2110. There, she says she now makes “the highest salary I've earned doing curatorial work.”

In May, a Google Sheets document made its way around arts and cultural institutions, inviting employees to anonymously post their salaries. “I have a lot of friends who also work at other arts institutions and we are pretty open about what we’re making and what we’ve made before,” Torok said. “The amount of time off I get, the amount I’m paid, the fact that I have good and affordable health insurance — it all sort of speaks for itself.”

The mythology of prestige-as-sustenance extends to other finite resources: time and energy. While it has long been commonplace to hear employers tell their staff “We’re like family here” to justify overextending employees’ hours and allocated tasks, today’s workplace culture in general dictates that employees should dynamic, flexible, and nimble — buzzwords that, according to Kopel, “have sort of become euphemisms for neoliberal precarity, and that really doesn’t work for workers.”

Kopel described such a workplace culture at the New Museum, particularly because jobs in the art world are “framed as a passion project: you're doing this because you love it, you're getting to do something you care about, so you're paying your dues.”

“That's not right, and it's also really exclusionary — only certain people can afford to take on a passion project as their lives,” Kopel said. One of the goals of their union is to “make these jobs more sustainable and more livable for more people.” Indeed, that sort of disparity can become glaringly obvious in times of collective action; one museum worker at the June 25 action noted the optics of a mostly-white museum staff rallying to unionize, while also hoping that improved working conditions could help make museums more accessible places to work.

“We value and respect our staff tremendously and will continue to work together, as we always have, to advance the Museum’s mission,” a New Museum spokesperson said via email on June 28. “In late March we began productive regular bargaining sessions with the union, though only recently received their wage and benefit proposals. We are giving this the attention it deserves and look forward to a positive resolution and first contract with the union.”

Furthermore, a union contract can provide museum workers a proverbial seat at the table, in an industry marked by high staff turnover and ever-present plans for construction and expansion. (Indeed, the day after the June 25 action, the New Museum announced plans for expansion, with construction alone estimated at $63 million.) Nicole Daniels, a part-time educator at the Tenement Museum, sees a union as a means of protection amidst constant change. “All of us are affected by any changes that happen in the museum,” Daniels says, and workers haven’t always had “a voice in how that change happens. Museum workers are starting to recognize how being organized ensures that voice.”

At the New Museum, an institution founded on notions of radical collaboration and empowerment, workers recognize that their union, their place in the wave, is itself a reason to organize. “Seeing that this is possible, seeing that this makes sense and it works in the art world—the more examples we can have of that, the better,” says Kopel. “Each time it happens, it shifts the window of possibility for what can happen.”