Marciano Art Foundation lays off employees trying to unionize

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Marciano Art Foundation lays off employees trying to unionize
The Marciano Art Foundation, housed in a former Masonic temple from 1961, in Los Angeles, May 10, 2017. After employees at the Marciano Art Foundation announced they were taking steps to form a union, the museum said it was anticipating discussions but then laid off visitors services associates and said it was closed to the public. Emily Berl/The New York Times.

by Colin Moynihan

LOS ANGELES (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Last week, after employees at the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles announced that they were taking steps to form a union, the museum issued a statement saying it looked forward to “engaging with them to learn more about their requests.”

“As an organization, we are supportive of all recommendations to improve the workplace experience,” the museum’s statement went on to say, adding that it anticipated “discussions.”

Instead, workers who had sought unionization received an email from the foundation Tuesday evening that said, “Effective Thursday Nov. 7, we will be laying off all of the Visitors Services Associates.”

The foundation, a private museum with a heralded collection that was opened by two of the brothers who started the Guess clothing empire, cited “low attendance the past few weeks” in the email and said it would close “the current exhibition” Wednesday. The museum also said it would pay the affected workers for up to two weeks’ scheduled time “upon receiving a signed separation agreement.”

The move, which was reported first by the Los Angeles Times, caused ripples in that city, where the museum was widely seen as an ambitious project.

Union officials, who filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board Friday seeking to represent about 70 employees, called the dismissals “clearly retaliatory.” An employee who lost his job said that the decision was reminiscent of how Guess reacted to unionization efforts 20 years ago.

The organizing at the foundation was the latest in a series of such efforts at museums across the country, including the New Museum and the Guggenheim in New York, and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.

The creators, Maurice and Paul Marciano, started Guess in 1981 with two other brothers, then became known as art collectors. Maurice served for several years on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. He is now chair emeritus. In 2017, the two opened their private institution in a former Masonic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard that their foundation bought for $8 million. The collection includes about 1,500 works by artists including Cindy Sherman, David Hammons and Damien Hirst, and the museum has put on shows by Jim Shaw and Ai Weiwei.

On Wednesday, the museum’s website said: “The foundation will remain closed to the public until further notice.” Two shows, by artists Donna Huanca and Anna Uddenberg, that had initially been scheduled to run until Dec. 1 were listed as having ended Monday.

Only people with titles that would have been covered by the union lost their jobs, said Lylwyn Esangga, organizing director with District Council 36 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which filed the NLRB petition.

The union asked to represent employees including docents and visitors services associates, who talk with visitors about exhibits and help with ticketing, among other tasks.

The administrative staff members, supervisors and directors did not appear to be affected, said Esangga, adding that although attendance at the museum had been low, it had not been presented as tied to employment.

She said the union was talking with its lawyers about filing a complaint with the NLRB alleging that the museum had engaged in unfair labor practices, calling its move “an anti-union tactic.”

A museum spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Samuel Estreicher, a labor expert at New York University School of Law, said that as a general practice, employers are allowed to lay off employees as a part of a business decision but cannot discriminate against people for trying to start a union.

“It’s a motive issue,” he said, adding that a determination on whether the action violated labor law would likely depend in part on what had been in the works at the museum.

Eli Petzold, who lost his job, said that he and other visitors services associates had been shocked. Speaking of the brothers behind the foundation, he added: “I think they think they can treat their art museum like it’s Guess.”

Guess was widely criticized for its labor practices in the 1990s. In 1992, The company agreed to self-policing to help settle a federal investigation that found large-scale wage and child-labor violations by its contractors. It was later placed on probation from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trendsetter list, an honor roll of apparel makers that were considered sweatshop-free.

Under pressure from the NLRB, Guess agreed in 1997 to reinstate 20 workers who said they had been fired because of union activities, the Los Angeles Times reported. The company acknowledged no wrongdoing and said it did not do anything to oppose the union. That year, the company also moved most of its manufacturing to Mexico.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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