U.S. museums see rise in unions even as labor movement slumps

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U.S. museums see rise in unions even as labor movement slumps
Outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, May 24, 2021. Workers at nearly two dozen American art museums have created collective bargaining units in recent years to push for better pay and working conditions. Hannah Yoon/The New York Times.

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- The carpenters and the security guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art had long been members of a union when, in 2020, workers from departments across the museum — curators, conservators, educators and librarians — voted to create one of the largest museum unions in the country, with nearly 250 members.

Workers at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles soon formed their own unions, part of a wave of labor-organizing efforts at nearly two dozen art institutions where employees have created new collective-bargaining units in the last three years.

Many of the workers who have recently joined unions have come from the curatorial, administrative and education staffs: white-collar office workers who often had not been represented by collective-bargaining units.

The surge in organizing has even spawned a podcast, “Art and Labor,” whose producers say they “advocate for fair labor practices for artists, assistants, fabricators, docents, interns, registrars, janitors, writers, editors, curators, guards, performers and anyone doing work for art and cultural institutions.”

And it comes, surprisingly, at a time when the national union membership rate has matched historic lows, down significantly from the 1950s, when more than a third of American workers were part of a collective-bargaining unit. Last year, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate for workers was 10.3%.

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

Organizers say their efforts to convince white-collar arts workers to unionize have been fueled by increasing frustration over the pay gap between museum employees and executives, and that pandemic layoffs heightened the concerns of some employees looking for better wages and job security.

“Museum workers realized that the human resource policies in terms of pay and benefits were oftentimes byzantine,” said Tom Juravich, a professor who researches labor movements at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They realized that they were being treated more like servants to the elite.”

Mary Ceruti, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which unionized in 2020, said labor efforts are part of a larger push for change at institutions that are also being asked to diversify their workforce and to feature a broader sweep of art.

“Unionizing has emerged as one way that staff are trying 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 have accused museums of being hypocritical when they champion progressivism in their art exhibitions and embrace new diversity policies in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests while challenging the efforts of workers to seek better pay and conditions.

“There is a residue of elite sensibility,” said Laura Raicovich, former director of the Queens Museum in New York, who recently wrote a book about why cultural institutions have become central to political debates around diversity and equity. “Museum directors have been trained to think of unions as organizations that don’t take into consideration the bigger picture.”

Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, a chapter of the United Auto Workers union that represents 1,500 staff members from nearly 20 cultural institutions, said the expansion of the labor movement to a wider set of museum workers originated 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 picketing.

It was heralded at the time as the first self-organized union of professional employees at a privately financed museum. Organizers complained that staff members were poorly managed and underpaid, leading to a strike in 1971, and another in 1973 that made the cover of Artforum magazine and popularized demands for transparency from museum trustees that are still echoed today.

“There used to be this narrative from museum management that workers were supposed to be very privileged,” Rosenstein said. “You were working for prestige. Your expectations were supposed to be low.”

PASTA didn’t immediately spark a labor movement in the art world, but it became a touchstone 50 years later when, in 2019, more than 3,000 cultural workers began to anonymously share their salaries through an online pay transparency spreadsheet. Employees at the New Museum in New York began organizing around this time, and started comparing their wages to the executive salaries disclosed in the financial reports that museums and other nonprofits must publish.

“It was egregious at the New Museum when we started organizing, and some of my colleagues were making around $35,000 a year,” said Dana Kopel, a former employee at the museum who now helps other nonprofits unionize.

Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, has said that “staff and board are united around our purpose and values, and we’ve accomplished so much working together.”

A contract later established minimum salaries ranging from $46,000 to $68,500 alongside increased paid time off and reduced employee contributions to health care costs. Unionization at the New Museum helped pave the way for organizers who called out pay differentials at institutions like the Guggenheim and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Opinion surveys of American workers suggest labor unions are more popular than they have been, with a 2018 study showing that 48% of nonunion employees would join a union if given the opportunity. And new labor organizing is evident on college campuses, inside Amazon warehouses and at Starbucks locations.

Though organizing efforts at many museums have been successful, agreement on contract terms has not always been swift. Museums have said multimillion-dollar losses of revenue during the pandemic shutdowns have impeded their ability to make long-term deals.

So nearly a year after voting to unionize, more than 100 workers at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts formed a picket line outside their institution in November to grab the attention of museum leaders, who have not yet agreed to a contract. More than two years after the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles voluntarily recognized its employee union, organizers are also waiting for a contract and have complained that officials rejected their proposals of higher wages and other benefits. And at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, organizers are also locked in bargaining nearly 18 months after its unionization.

“I naïvely thought that you win an election and most of the work gets done,” said Adam Rizzo, president of the Philadelphia museum’s union, “but the work gets harder as you negotiate with management and continue to do the weekly outreach.”

Norman Keyes, a spokesman for the Philadelphia museum, said the institution is “committed to reaching a collective-bargaining agreement that achieves the best outcome for our staff while sustaining 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 arriving at an inaugural collective-bargaining agreement.”

Nevertheless, some workers in the museum industry have said their employers are stalling negotiations to demoralize their bargaining units; others have gone further, accusing officials of retaliating against staff members who support unionization.

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

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

Katie Rahn, a spokeswoman for the Art Institute, said it could not respond to the allegations of retaliation because there is a policy to respect the privacy of personnel matters.

“We look forward to working with the union through the collective-bargaining process toward 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 the union membership of District Council 37, which has two union shops at the museum, one representing guards and another representing clerical workers. Those shops together comprise roughly 250 members; District Council 37 is working to add a third local that could include dozens of employees to the union ranks with titles like 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 to vote to unionize, and we are hearing many viewpoints from staff as they inform themselves on this issue.” The statement added that “Jacklyn Lacey’s termination is entirely separate from the current union organizing effort.”

Many museum employees who have hitched their futures to collective organizing say they are optimistic that unions will protect them in an uncertain world.

“We want equity baked into our contract,” said Sheila Majumdar, an editor and union organizer at the Art Institute of Chicago, which plans on having its first bargaining meeting in spring.

“We have gotten further away from the myth of the cultural worker just being grateful to have a job in this sector,” she explained, adding that younger workers have a better understanding of their value.

“We are the ones who make museums.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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