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As Whitney Biennial Approaches, Museum’s Art Handlers Face Potential Labor Dispute [UPDATED]

by Liza Eliano on January 20, 2012

First Sotheby’s, and now possibly the Whitney. While the Teamsters of Local 814 have been fighting with Sotheby’s since August for a better contract, a new labor dispute has the potential to crop up for the art handlers of Local 966 that work at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

A source close to the contract negotiations notified Hyperallergic on Wednesday that the union and the museum have had five meetings and are unable yet to settle on a new contact. If no agreement is reached soon, the current contract will expire January 31, two days into the installation of the highly anticipated 2012 Whitney Biennial.

According to the source, who has asked to remain anonymous, the art handlers have asked that their new contract include several provisions:

  • A yearly wage increase of 3-4% on top of the Cost of Living Adjustment, which is 3/6% nationally.
  • 6 weeks of paid maternity leave, since one of the art handlers is now pregnant.
  • Overtime for temp workers who are a part of Local 966. These workers often come in on the weekends, but are not paid overtime if they have not accrued the required number of hours during the weekday. Case in point, during Hurricane Irene the temps were staying in the museum for 36 hours they weren’t eligible for overtime under the current contract.
  • A reduction in health care contributions, which is at 10% in the current contract.

The Whitney acceded to almost none of these demands, instead offering a contact with no overtime, no maternity leave, an increase in health care contributions that actually doubles that amount workers with families will have to pay and only a %1 total increase of wages per year.

The source noted that the Whitney has not been particularly hostile in any of the meetings, but they have hired the help of lawyer Ronald Kreisman, of Blank Rome LLP, who has a record of being anti-union.

Local 966 is a much smaller shop compared to the 42 art handlers that make up local 814, and it consists of six full time art handlers, five contracted handlers who come in for specific projects and several temporary workers.

As the Biennial approaches, the art handlers are becoming increasingly worried that things will not be resolved in time. Our source explained, “The Biennial is an incredibly hectic time and demanding on such a small staff. Any delay could potentially interfere with the opening date.”

We have reached out to the Whitney for a comment and will update when their statement becomes available.   The Whitney’s Communications Department has released the following statement in response to our request for comment:

I received your inquiry. There is no labor dispute going on between the Whitney and our art handlers. I think you may be confusing us with another arts organization. We are in normal contract negotiations, which have been quiet and cordial. Our usual process is going on and we do not anticipate any problems.

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  • http://jdsiazon.wordpress.com JD Siazon

    Local 966 should ask the artists slated to participate in the Biennial to boycott it on their behalf.

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