Issues & Commentary: Organizing the Museum

New York Art Strike taking over the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art, June 18, 1970. Photo Jan van Raay.

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THIS YEAR, on the morning of Friday, January 4, the United Automobile Workers Local 2110— the union’s chapter for technical, office, and professional workers—sent an email to the director of the New Museum in New York, Lisa Phillips. That afternoon, the local sent a second email to the institution’s upper management and board of directors. Seventy-four museum employees, the emails related, had formally notified the National Labor Relations Board of their intent to form a union. In the coming weeks, the NLRB would schedule a vote among all nonsupervisory staff except for those working in security or maintenance. (Legal precedent allows employers to object to security guards being in the same union as other workers; the museum’s maintenance workers opted not to participate.) The emails asked the museum not to interfere with the workers’ right to organize.

Members of the union organizing committee told me in several interviews that they spent the day anxious and uneasy. Since August 2018, they had been convening over lunch or coffee, or rendezvousing for after-work drinks to share their grievances. The earliest meetings were informal. People were angry. The museum had raised $85 million to expand the institution—a building project overseen by architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA—but failed to compensate employees adequately. Some people working full-time were making as little as $35,000 a year, hardly a living wage in New York City. Management expected employees to work more than forty hours per week, whether to staff events or in a scramble to meet harrowing deadlines, but routinely encouraged them not to report overtime hours—characterizations a New Museum spokesperson disputes. (In New York in 2018, making less than $51,000 entitled you to overtime pay for any hours above forty worked in one week, in 2019 this threshold increased to $58,500.) The part-timers had no access to health care, even those whose jobs were physically demanding and sometimes hazardous, as the art handlers would attest. Turnover rates were high. Among staff, there was a collective sense that the museum was cultivating a workplace culture wherein lower-ranking employees would work for two years and then leave. To wit: getting into graduate school was sometimes touted as a potential benefit of museum employment.

“We considered writing an open letter,” Dana Kopel told me, “to spotlight labor conditions at the museum and drum up public support.” Kopel is senior editor and publications coordinator at the museum (she has also contributed criticism to Art in America). “But a letter can only do so much; a union, we decided, could put in place a support for longer-lasting structural changes.” In October 2018, Kopel and her editorial colleague, Lily Bartle, reached out to members of MoMA’s union, the Professional and Administrative Staff Association (PASTA), an affiliate of UAW Local 2110, and arranged an informational session. Workers at the two institutions eventually shared their salaries, revealing that employees at MoMA, albeit a better-funded institution, earned significantly higher wages for similar work. By December, the New Museum’s union organizing committee was in place and had begun collecting the employee signatures they would need to petition the NLRB. By early January, enough staff at the museum had signed cards to meet Local 2110’s requirement of a supermajority. Remarkably, given that organizing is mostly talking and words are so often peripatetic, the union drive took place without anyone from upper management or the board hearing news of it. Once the petition was filed, there was nothing to do but wait. If management were to uphold the progressive positions routinely fronted in its public-facing materials—the 2018 triennial “Songs for Sabotage” was presented as a “call for action, an active engagement, and an interference in political and social structures”—it might support the union without conflict.

Friday came and went. The weekend passed, then Monday did too. Both the board and upper management offered nothing but radio silence. Toward the end of Tuesday, January 8, select museum staffers were told of a meeting “for supervisors” to take place the following morning. “It was the first I’d heard of anything union-related from the museum and also the first time I’d ever been referred to as a supervisor,” Kopel said. Kopel learned she wasn’t alone; some eleven employees expecting to be part of the union’s bargaining unit—employees who had never understood their positions to be “supervisory”—found themselves called to the meeting. (A spokesman for the New Museum affirmed in an email that the institution “did not reclassify any employees or change any job titles. We are following the NLRB’s criteria for determining whether someone is part of the group represented by the union.”)

As has been widely reported, this meeting was run by “union avoidance consultants” from the Kentucky-based Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, a firm offering an array of “urgent” and “strategic” services with titles like the Union-Free Privilege® and Union Avoidance Training. Those in attendance were told that the meeting was being held to provide a more “balanced” view of union membership and that, as supervisors, they had a duty to be loyal to the museum. ANH&S representatives then launched into a presentation with the usual arguments about the dangers of unionization—that unions increase bureaucracy and decrease flexibility, sow divisions between employees, and take advantage of members by extracting dues from hard-earned salaries. Union representation, in sum, would make work harder and more complicated. The presentation included an anecdote about how a union ruined one family’s Thanksgiving dinner. A similar meeting was held for department heads the same afternoon.

Following these presentations, representatives from the firm held a series of one-on-one meetings with department heads and supervisors, which continued throughout the following day, Thursday, January 10. Some employees have reported being asked during these meetings to name names. The consultants wanted to know who was responsible for organizing the drive. At least one interviewer repeatedly relied on metaphors borrowed from the Star Wars franchise: Is anyone the Darth Vader of the organization? Is upper management seen as an Evil Empire?

As the New Museum spokesman said, “we had to quickly become educated on labor law issues related to the process” and “we wanted to acknowledge the differing views of employees in this process.” Engaging ANH&S, however, turned out to be a miscalculation on the part of management: the move struck many employees as antagonistic, which angered them and encouraged some who were previously on the fence about unionization to come out in favor of it. Moreover, until then, the organizing committee had remained quiet about the campaign, preferring to give the museum time to process the development and respond. But after the arrival of ANH&S, organizers went public, launching a website and issuing a press release, airing the issues of the campaign and the museum’s response to it. The story was picked up and appeared the same afternoon in several art news outlets. Then, on Friday, more than forty museum employees—about a third of the total staff—gathered in the lobby of the New Museum wearing T-shirts that read we deserve a fair contract to make visible the broad support for the union.

On Tuesday, January 15, more meetings: staff across the museum were divided into four groups, each required to attend a scheduled meeting with management. ANH&S was not present. The stated purpose of these assemblies was to “open lines of communication” and to help staff  make an “informed opinion.” But the communication seemed to flow in one direction. Management told employees that they felt “betrayed” and reiterated versions of the arguments put forth by the consultants. “Again and again, management emphasized that a union would sow divisions between employees and cause irreparable damage,” Bartle said. One manager compared the effort to the Brexit referendum: British voters were reported to have considered the implications of their choice only after the polls closed.

A meeting called a little more than a week later, on January 23, the day before the scheduled union vote, had a similar tone. Several museum leaders, including Phillips, cautioned workers against voting in favor of the union, arguing it “could cause irreparable damage.” Saul Dennison, board chairman emeritus and a close friend of Marcia Tucker, the New Museum’s progressive founder, to whose stated values the union organizers made repeated appeals, told staff that Marcia used to call him her North Star. “I hope I can be yours,” he said, in an attempt to dissuade workers from supporting the drive.

On January 24, employees at the New Museum cast ballots in a vote on whether to join the UAW: the vote came out thirty-eight in favor; eight opposed. Ten votes—cast by museum employees who believed they were eligible to vote but whose eligibility has been contested—were challenged and have not yet been counted. The NLRB will hold hearings in the coming months to determine their eligibility. The bargaining unit, as it stands, includes fifty-three workers. They have recently elected their bargaining committee and as of this writing are set to begin contract negotiations March. “We respect our employees’ right to organize,” the New Museum said in an email statement, “and the decision they ultimately made, and look forward to a productive and good faith bargaining process.”

 

THE SUCCESSFUL campaign by New Museum employees to affiliate with Local 2110 is but one in a bevy of recent efforts on the part of highly educated, skilled workers to form collective bargaining units at workplaces not traditionally associated with unions. (“Unions are for coal miners,” a member of museum management is said to have told staff.) While across the United States, union membership has seen a steady decline for the past several decades—in 2018, a historic low of 10.5 percent of American workers were members of a union, compared with nearly twice as many in 1983 and nearly three times as many in the mid-1950s—professional workers and young people are bringing new energy to the labor movement.

Graduate students at Harvard, Columbia, Tufts, and Yale have all recently voted to form unions. A wave of organizing at digital newsrooms, many of them in New York, brought unions to more than two thousand journalists working at Fusion, the Root, Salon, Vice, MTV News, ThinkProgress, the Guardian US, Jacobin, the Intercept, Thrillist, Slate, and other venues. At the New Yorker, 90 percent of staff signed on to join the NewsGuild of New York. More than 54,000 contingent faculty on 60 different university campuses across the US have joined the Service Employees International Union through its Faculty Forward initiative. And whereas historically younger workers have been less inclined to join unions, in 2017, about 75 percent of the 262,000 new union members were under the age of thirty-five.

The New Museum union drive made headlines in both the art and mainstream press in part because it ranks among the elite art institutions more often associated with New York’s privileged, moneyed classes than its struggling ones. But it is not the only institution of its caliber and global reach whose professional staff have unionized. So-called white-collar workers at MoMA are today represented by Local 2110, which also represents skilled professionals at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the New-York Historical Society. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, staff are represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29. Even in states where support for unions is generally much weaker than in California or New York, which have the highest union density, staff at museums have joined, including at the Milwaukee Public Museum and Harvard Art Museums. In fact, according to Bloomberg Law, around 12 percent of all museum employees belong to a union, just slightly higher than the national average, with chapters at more than forty institutions across the country.

Historically, the task of organizing white-collar workers has often been an arduous one. In 1957, a union organizer writing anonymously in Harper’s offered various explanations why: white-collar workers “consider it beneath their dignity, because they feel differently from blue collar workers about their jobs and their status, because they are afraid it will hurt their advancement, and because the face of the labor movement seems to them crude and exploitative.”1

The Great American Dream has a firmer hold, perhaps, on white-collar workers, who often aspire to something above and beyond their current occupation—a union could interfere with the promotions of a young worker on the make. In this way, they tend to identify with the managerial class. Blue-collar workers may also have sights on moving upward in their jobs, but tend also, many by necessity, to put concrete, material considerations, such as wages and health care, first. A white-collar worker may be more inclined to make sacrifices in pay and benefits in return for the personal, if ineffable, rewards that “collegial status” offers. 

What seems to be steering younger professional workers of all political stripes toward unionization today has everything to do with the economy. Young people, many of whom entered the workforce during the last recession, have experienced a very different labor market than the one of preceding generations. Wages have stagnated, offering less than what boomers and Gen Xers earned at the same point in their lives. Available jobs are also providing diminishing benefits and, relatedly, increasingly contingent employment arrangements. 

At the same time, many of these young people are already burdened by devastating levels of debt as they set out to establish their careers. For students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2015–16, for example, the average debt load was roughly $30,000. For those with graduate degrees, the typical debt load is around $58,000, with one in four borrowers owing about $100,000 or more. On average, student loans command monthly payments of close to $400. With the rising costs of real estate, child care, and medical care, debt-strapped employees who can’t pay their bills or afford to rent an apartment (let alone a down payment to buy one) are beginning to identify with the working rather than the managerial class.

In the art world, the identification of those considered middle-class with those considered working-class has its own complicated history. One thread begins in the late 1960s, in New York, when a group of artists, art critics, and art-world professionals, including museum staff, agitated to redefine themselves as “workers.” The Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) formed as a provisional affiliation of individuals. Core participants included artists Carl Andre, Hans Haacke (notably, the subject of a retrospective at the New Museum this fall), and Robert Smithson, as well as critic Lucy Lippard. The term “art worker”gave left-leaning artists a collective identity to rally behind,” Julia Bryan-Wilson observes in her 2009 book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era.2 The coalition began by asking basic questions about members’ working conditions and brought into focus their disdain for the museum system. Art institutions were an obvious target because of their wealthy, powerful boards; AWC advocated for greater transparency on exhibition policies as well as public accessibility, even demanding free admission for all. The museum “free day” is a legacy of their action.

Soon the coalition broadened its scope to oppose the war in Vietnam and the increasingly repressive tactics of the US government. AWC organized a series of demonstrations, including the New York Art Strike against War, Racism, Fascism, Sexism, and Repression, which closed the city’s museums for a day in May 1970. In response to the massacre at My Lai, a subcommittee of AWC produced the now iconic poster Q. And babies? A. And babies (1970). MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art were both targets of these demonstrations.

Throughout the coalition’s short-lived existence—it dissolved in 1971—it remained ideologically incoherent. Most of those who participated in the AWC “were more interested in redefining workers and critics as specialized kinds of workers—as well as emphasizing how largely unpaid their labor was—than in developing literal, lasting alliances with blue-collar labor,” Wilson writes.3 This can be attributed in part to the influence of the New Left. Whereas leftism had long held that blue-collar workers were potential agents of the revolution, New Leftists began to champion the “intellectual labor” of artists and students. Unions, in their estimation, were undemocratic, top-down bureaucracies whose members, while working-class by economic standards, stood otherwise opposed to leftist values.

Whatever doubts the New Leftists might have had about their characterization of unions were extinguished by the Hard Hat Riot of May 8, 1971, wherein approximately two hundred union members, mostly construction workers, descended on the hundreds of peace activists gathered at New York’s City Hall to memorialize those killed in the Kent State shootings. The workers, who wore hard hats and carried signs with pro-USA and pro-war slogans (“America, Love It or Leave It” was especially popular), attacked the protesters and beat them with their hats and other weapons. The police failed to intervene.

The same class tensions expressed through the politics of AWC were also present when created, in June ’71, of MoMA’s PASTA. Five unions representing guards, electricians, and restaurant personnel already existed at the museum; at its formation, PASTA represented 70 percent of staff not affiliated with other unions. A year later, PASTA joined the Distributive Workers of America as Local 1, Museum Division, making it the first union to be formed by the professional staff of a museum. Much like at the New Museum, MoMA higher-ups contested the eligibility of various employees for inclusion in the bargaining unit. Then, while the first contract negotiations were under way, the museum fired fifty-three people, thirty-six of them members of PASTA, prompting a two-week strike in late August of 1971.

In 1973 four PASTA members from various departments were interviewed for Artforum by editors Lawrence Alloway and John Coplans. Discomfort with being affiliated with the working classes is evidenced by both those doing the interviewing and those being interviewed. “Don’t you think that it might have been more relevant for the PASTA not to have got into the classical trade-union situation?” Alloway and Coplans asked. “Might it not have been more relevant if you had formed an association of museum professionals?”4 One PASTA member (their responses are not individually attributed) noted that the “bread-and-butter issues only came up after the Association was already formed. No one spoke about their salary. It was considered gauche to discuss your salary.” And later: “We do not want the Association to become another blue-collar labor organization which is continually struggling over wages and fringe benefits. We are a group of dedicated professionals who are concerned about the institution.”5

In response to Alloway’s second article on the subject, “Museums and Unionization,” published in 1975, Peter Dworkin, a MoMA preparator and union member, wrote to the magazine:

Here at MOMA, the Professional and Administrative Staff Association continually betrays an elitist attitude born of intellectual delicacy which seems to preclude a liaison between PASTA and the trades. . . . Although PASTA had made one or two desultory attempts at initiating a dialogue with trade union members, it has yet to demonstrate a willingness to adopt a continuing policy of cooperation and respect, without which it must always remain a frustrated and incoherent amalgamation of diffident dissidents, waving toy swords at an increasingly sophisticated managerial arsenal.6

The term “art worker” was meant to combat such elitist attitudes, in part by raising questions about what, precisely, work is. If art-making is meant to be a nonproductive act of self-expression—and against which more traditional ideas of work are often defined—then how can an artist also be a worker? The complexity inherent in this question is one that the contemporary organization WAGE continues to grapple with as it asks institutions to provide fair compensation to artists participating in their programs.

But being proximate to art isn’t the same as making it, and for art world professionals other than artists, the term worker is perhaps more simply descriptive. The work of an editor in a museum’s publication department, no matter how much she enjoys it, cannot be defined as leisure-time activity. And categorizing the work as an act of personal devotion to justify a low salary effectively limits the candidates who can “do what they love” in an expensive city to those with independent wealth.

The union members I spoke with at the New Museum and MoMA seemed to embrace the term “worker” and whatever overlaps with the working classes the fact of unionization invokes. At MoMA, members of the PASTA bargaining committee spoke of the museum as a microcosm of broader class issues in America. They see the unions at the museum as helping to defend against those who would prefer to pretend class differences are not in play. The union provides staff with a sense of empowerment to speak up and air their grievances at the workplace—and a mechanism for going on strike, as they did for 134 days in 2000.

The actions they organize together—last summer, for example, MoMA workers held public demonstrations and renegotiated their contracts over a period of four months—build solidarity between workers who are otherwise siloed in their respective departments. Meanwhile, because so many of the supervisors at MoMA worked their way up from lower positions, and thus were once themselves part of the union, they often react to employees participating in union actions with empathy rather antagonism. While the work they perform may differ in kind from that in more trade-oriented professions, their struggles are not so dissimilar. What the various participants in the Artforum interview apparently failed to grasp is that a union fight about wages is not just about wages; it’s also about dignity. The staff at MoMA and the New Museum, the young people turning in favor of unions—seem to understand this.

 

THE REASONS professional management of a profit-seeking corporation might oppose employee unionization are conspicuous and well-understood, whatever one may think of them. Unions exist to protect worker rights. Worker rights make it harder for managers to fire employees, adjust wages, or cut costs—protections that managers often understand to be at odds with their raison d’être: to maximize profits. But why organizations like museums, ostensibly driven by mission instead of money, sometimes stand opposed to unionization—and there are many examples of such organizations inside and outside the cultural sphere—is perhaps less self-evident. 

“Nonprofits tend to argue that they have less money and that unionization will wreck them,” Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110 told me. “You see this especially with social services, but elsewhere, too. A place like the New Museum might also argue that unions are crude outsiders who can’t understand their values.” As the New Museum spokesman stated, “part of our mission is to reconsider the role of museums, and we have done this regularly throughout our history. This requires flexibility and responsiveness to a changing world—qualities the museum takes pride in.” But when art institutions with large endowments and wealthy boards put forth these claims, institutions, that, to boot, routinely espouse progressive values in their exhibitions and other programming, they seem to be inviting accusations of hypocrisy. And hypocrisy, it turns out, can be a galvanizing force.

When Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum in 1977, she was in part responding to her experiences at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “I didn’t want to repeat the flaws of the Whitney’s management structure,” she wrote in her memoir A Short Life of Trouble, “which by the time I was fired, in 1976, felt more like a government office than a museum, with cocktail parties instead of summit meetings.”7 Tucker, as the first woman curator hired by the museum, had experienced sexism daily from male curators and bosses and critics. Starting her own museum, she thought she could find “ways to redistribute authority and privilege in the museum context; to share power and decision making; to create alternative management structures that stressed collaboration, openness, mutual respect, exchange, dialogue. . . . I thought that work hierarchies in the museum could be subverted by rotating jobs so that eventually everyone would know what everyone else’s job entailed and would appreciate the skills involved.”8 To address arbitrary salary differences that had caused her so much grief, she opted simply to pay everyone the same thing, at first leaving out herself because there wasn’t enough money to go around.

In March 2018, the New Museum hosted four workshops on sexual harassment, advertised as aiming to “provide tools, support, and guidance for both leaders and workers in the arts to combat sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.” The workshops, each organized by women in high-level positions at the museum, were open to the public although staff were also encouraged to attend. Despite the best intentions of those involved, the workshops irked some museum workers who attended, including members of the bargaining committee I spoke with, who viewed their higher-ups as espousing values they themselves did not practice. The session called “Changing the Balance of Power and Getting What We Deserve: Salaries, Promotions, Mentorship,” organized by deputy director Karen Wong and led by a special adviser to United Nations Women, turned out to be especially dispiriting. Some staff who had previously asked for raises or promotions found the experience trying: management had either avoided them or cited the museum’s lack of funds. Others who were successful in their negotiations encountered long delays before the agreed-upon increase appeared in their paychecks. Mentorship, meanwhile, according to employees, was virtually nonexistent.

For Tucker, it was important that the museum embody feminist ideals; an essential component of any feminist practice was for those in a position to do so to support other women and serve as mentors. Museum workers found that while publicly, the higher-ups at the museum, many of them women, presented themselves as feminist, they actually subscribed to what we now call lean-in feminism, a kind of business-friendly empowerment politics. According to these ideals, what holds women back are low self-esteem, fear of failure, lack of will to lead. The solutions, meanwhile, are individualized; the change, top down. But trickle-down feminism has not actually trickled down to the people who work there: today the museum’s director makes close to $750,000 per year in total compensation while the median salary of full-time union staff is $52,000.

What leaders of an institution founded on feminist principles are failing to recognize is that union politics can be feminist politics. As Alloway wrote in 1975, “Since women form a majority in most museums in the lower echelons, they have become the major organizers against the existing regimes.”9 He was thinking of MoMA in the early 1970s but he might have been writing about the New Museum in 2019. When workers organize it is because they care about the organization; they want to build long careers there and are putting into place the conditions to make it possible.

Correction: the print version of this article incorrectly states that board members were present at a meeting on January 15 with New Museum staff members.