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Will unions make a difference at US museums?

28 June 2021

From the July/August 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In the last couple of years, staff at museums all over the United States have successfully organised themselves into unions. What has motivated their efforts – and will it improve their lots? Dana Kopel and Maxwell L. Anderson offer their perspectives.

Dana Kopel

In 2019, workers at the New Museum in New York voted overwhelmingly to unionise. I had been working as an editor at the museum for a couple of years and was deeply involved in the organising process. (I worked at the New Museum until June 2020, when I and many other union members were laid off, the stated reason being the pandemic.) Spurred by salaries we couldn’t afford to live on, hours of unpaid overtime, and a top-down culture that treated lower-level staff as disposable, my colleagues and I formed the New Museum Union in order to align our working conditions with the museum’s stated commitment to diverse, progressive programming.

At the time, there hadn’t been a major union campaign in a museum since the 1970s, when MoMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art unionised – although art handlers at MoMA PS1 organised in 2015 and workers at MoMA and Sotheby’s held major strikes in 2000 and 2011, respectively. Since we unionised at the New Museum, workers at other museums across the United States have formed their own unions: at the Tenement Museum in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to name only a few.

If unions at museums didn’t make a difference, management wouldn’t fight them so hard. Union-busting campaigns at museums, as at other workplaces, can take various forms, from outright hostility to bureaucratic manoeuvering and subtle retaliation. At the New Museum, we experienced the full range of these strategies. Other institutions have also engaged in union-busting tactics. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2020, management refused to grant the union voluntary recognition, forcing an election, and attempted to separate staff into two units, ‘core’ and ‘non-core’: as the PMA Union explained on Twitter, ‘2 unions gives workers less leverage’. Through organising, workers were able to defeat the core/non-core proposal and win their election with an overwhelming 89 per cent of yes votes. At the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles, all of the 70 front-facing staff were abruptly laid off in November 2019, just after they had announced their plans to unionise with AFSCME District Council 36. Management claimed they were suddenly closing the foundation due to a decline in visitors, rather than as retaliation for the union effort. AFSCME filed charges and, nearly nine months later, the Marciano Art Foundation paid out a settlement of roughly 10 weeks of severance pay to each employee.

As unionising becomes more common among museum workers, managements adopt more insidious approaches to union-busting. Take, for example, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where workers recently filed for a union election. Museum management tried to preempt the vote by offering to voluntarily recognise the workers’ union, an apparent gesture of goodwill – or good PR – masking their requirement that more than 50 people be cut from the proposed 180-person unit. Narrowing down a bargaining unit by contesting the eligibility of employees is a common tactic: much like two separate unions, a smaller union is weaker than a larger one.

What difference does a union make? Unions give workers a voice in their working conditions; they force management to share power and make decisions more equitably. Crucially, union membership – and the right to negotiate a contract that forming a union provides – creates material improvements in the lives of museum workers. At the New Museum, our first contract, which we ratified in October 2019, raised the wages of workers in visitor services and the museum store to $18 per hour from just above minimum wage; most of these workers hadn’t received a raise in three years. Our contract set a minimum salary of $46,000 for full-time entry-level staff – over $10,000 more than many of those employees were making when we started organising. We won healthcare stipends for part-time workers, pay increases for when someone temporarily takes on another person’s work, and just cause – a critical clause that prevents management from firing someone at will. As more and more museums unionise and negotiate contracts, more museum workers will not only improve their own conditions but also raise standards across the art industry.

Dana Kopel is a writer, editor and union organiser in New York.

Maxwell L. Anderson

Over the course of the pandemic, among the many inequities that have become even more visible, the revelation that the richest Americans have profited throughout the quarantine has exacerbated the resentments of cultural workers. In a few cases, the chequered pasts of some museum trustees or their questionable sources of wealth have led to some high-profile board resignations or departures, emboldening the rank and file to challenge the long-held tolerance of high executive salaries and opaque institutional decision-making.

The precipitous layoffs of entry-level staff and educators when the pandemic began soon came to seem particularly unjust. More often than not, it was people of colour who bore the brunt of layoffs, given their higher numbers within the service side of shuttered cultural organisations. As discontent grew, a number of museums became the focus of union drives by employees, who saw their job security vanish while directors issued expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter but seemed insulated from the immediate trauma being experienced by much of their workforce.

Behind the immediate questions of fairness in the labour market loom larger unknowns. For the last generation, museums have been complicit in fostering a fanciful business model tied to blockbuster exhibitions and events. Meanwhile, their mission to serve the community and their obligations to the care of collections, research, education and scholarship have taken something of a back seat. The evaporation of ticket sales during the pandemic revealed the hollowness of this erstwhile business model: most museums rely very little on admissions income, apart from some outliers in big tourist meccas. As a result, when the carousel of shows came to a halt, staff members were able to see much more clearly how their institutions worked – and notice that little changed at the top.

Panic at the outset of the pandemic led the Association of Art Museum Directors to lift temporarily a ban on selling art to pay for collection care (which can be more widely defined than the phrase suggests), which has led to a flurry of disposals of artworks from cash-strapped institutions before the exception ends. The covenant against monetising the art collection was universally held until Covid-19 descended, and it may now be too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

But, as Christopher Knight has reported in the Los Angeles Times, while museums were shrinking staff, the investment portfolios of some institutions were growing, in some cases by as much as 40 per cent. These factors across the national and museum landscapes combined to lead staff to demand fair and ethical governance, management, and investment practices – resulting in union drives. Should museums have temporarily increased endowment draws by a percentage point or two instead of firing lower-paid employees? Had they taken that path, it’s more likely that museum staff would have kept their jobs, and levels of resentment would have been kept to a minimum.

Instead, several museums are now entering into a new phase, one in which collective bargaining will replace a patchwork of employment practices. There will be benefits to entry-level workers, newly represented by shop stewards who will negotiate fixed increases to base pay, and improved benefits. Less salutary for many will be last-hired, first-fired policies, that can have a corrosive effect on workplace performance. Staff at museums across the north-east often look to a long-standing example of success: the Professional and Administrative Staff Association of the Museum of Modern Art (PASTA), which was formed in 1971. It represents a large swathe of the museum’s employees, and can be credited with negotiating higher bargaining-unit salaries than those at non-unionised museums. Only time will tell whether the satisfaction level of newly unionised staff will, museum by museum, rise. But one thing is certain: boards and C-suites are now paying more attention to the needs and rights of museum staff, unionised or not. There is hope that, tiring of bread and circuses, they will turn their attention towards a greater care for communities and collections as well.

Maxwell L. Anderson is president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation & Community Partnership.

From the July/August 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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