Demonstrators outside the Museum of Modern Art on May 31, 2018, calling for a fair contract for the museum's union workers. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Demonstrators outside the Museum of Modern Art on May 31, 2018, calling for a fair contract for the museum’s union workers. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The guests arriving for the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Party in the Garden last night were expecting to see a performance from the singer St. Vincent. Instead, as they tumbled out of their town cars and taxis, they were greeted with a concert of a different kind: a picket line.

Armed with protest signs and chanting “Modern art, ancient wages,” and “Shiny new building, shabby old wages,” about 100 members and supporters of UAW (United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers) Local 2110 — the union that represents some 250 workers at MoMA including curators, librarians, store staff, members services workers, graphic designers, and catalogue editors — took the opportunity of the museum’s biggest annual fundraiser to draw attention to their fight for a contract that protects their health care, job security, and wages. The union’s contract, last renegotiated in 2015 amid similar protests, expired on May 20.

Demonstrators outside the Museum of Modern Art on May 31, 2018, calling for a fair contract for the museum’s union workers.

“We hope that [the protest] will send a message to the museum that they’re not going to be able to do this under cover of darkness,” Maida Rosenstein, the president of UAW Local 2110, told Hyperallergic before yesterday’s rally. “If they are going to turn on their own staff in this way, people are going to notice. You can’t just honor Agnes Gund [the longtime MoMA trustee who was the honoree at last night’s gala] for her work in art and social justice — which we agree with — but then say, ‘we’re going to sweep the union negotiations under the rug.’”

The protesters were positioned outside the 53rd Street Museum entrance, but their chants could be heard from more than a block away and were punctuated by the supportive honks of passing cars.

One of the flyers distributed by demonstrators outside the Museum of Modern Art on May 31, 2018

“We’re out here because negotiations have come to a standstill,” explained Athena Holbrook, a Collections Specialist and member of the union’s bargaining committee, as she circled the picket line. “We haven’t been able to come to an agreement with the museum for a fair contract.”

“The union has been important historically and especially now with the expansion,” said Maria Marchenkova, an Assistant Editor. “Without the union, I can only imagine how deteriorated the terms of employment would be.”

Holbrook highlighted healthcare coverage as one of the top concerns for the union in the current contract discussions. “In the last negotiations in 2015, we had to make a lot of concessions on healthcare,” she said. At the time, MoMA management told staff that costs were so burdensome for the Museum that they had to pass them on to the staff.

Demonstrators outside the Museum of Modern Art on May 31, 2018, calling for a fair contract for the museum’s union workers.

“MoMA’s extraordinary staff are the best in the world,” a Museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “We are committed to working with the Local 2110 to reach an agreement that will keep our community of dedicated staff and the Museum on a path of financial stability and future growth. We respect the right of each individual to contribute to the open dialogue and make her or his voice heard in this process.”

Now that MoMA is in the midst of a major expansion, Holbrook and other staff members are wondering how the Museum that can afford a new building but can’t afford to cover the costs of its workers’ healthcare. “It’s a huge issue nationally,” she explained. “There’s a lot of uncertainty around that issue and our members need these costs alleviated.” MoMA’s current renovation and expansion project, slated to open be completed next year, is estimated to cost $450 million.

“As we’re going into the reopening of the expansion, there was a strong expectation that the staff would be rewarded for all the hard work that they have gone through in this period of time,” Rosenstein said. “Instead we’re being faced with a very low economic offer.”

In addition to healthcare, Holbrook said the union is particularly concerned about raises and job security. Not only do they want to ensure fair cost of living wages, but also job security and promotions. “The Museum has stated that they want to do away with our seniority step system with our raises,” she explained. “Our raises we receive at 3, 6, and 9 years of service,” which are especially crucial for staff “that don’t necessarily have a promotional track and can’t receive a raise through a title promotion. We rely on that kind of raise that comes from our loyalty and dedication.”

Demonstrators outside the Museum of Modern Art on May 31, 2018, calling for a fair contract for the museum’s union workers.

Protesters I spoke to also wondered why a Museum that portrays itself as progressive in its curatorial choices isn’t being similarly forward-thinking in the way it treats its workers.

“The offer they’re giving us across the table clearly reveals the hypocrisy that was always beneath the surface at this institution,” said Marchenkova. “The Museum definitely wants to position itself as invested in progressive values, culturally and otherwise.” She highlighted how, last year, a museum gallery was rehung to showcase artists from countries targeted by President Trump’s travel ban, making a subtle but unambiguous statement against his agenda.

“On the one hand, the museum wants to project a liberal image, a progressive image, in terms of the culture that it promotes, but in terms of its operations and the way it’s treating its employees, that’s at odds,” Marchenkov said.

Multiple members of Local 2110 told Hyperallergic that they were hopeful they could come to an agreement with management without a strike. However, they also said they’re willing to consider striking if management refuses to negotiate, an option they last used in 2000.

“That’s the power of a union, is in a strike,” said Megan Grann, a Sales Specialist in MoMA’s bookstore and member of the bargaining committee. “Of course that’s not the hope. The hope is that we settle a fair contract at the table.” Of the negotiating process so far, Grann said, “it’s tedious, but it’s supposed to be. I still feel confident. I feel like we’re making fair demands, and I think that the museum is in a position to come to the table.”

There was little interference from the handful of NYPD officers who kept watch over last night’s protest, but mostly looked uninterested. They only occasionally stepped in to tell people to keep moving. Union members handed out fliers explaining their position as partygoers entered the museum. Some guests practically sprinted to avoid having to interact with protesters, while others took multiple flyers. Only one  party attendee, a woman wearing a shiny blue shift dress and a look of disdain, took a flyer and then proceeded to slowly crumple it in her fist, dodging other passerby so she could dramatically throw it in a garbage can.

Demonstrators outside the Museum of Modern Art on May 31, 2018, calling for a fair contract for the museum’s union workers.

Aside from that incident, “the response has been great” said an exhibitions staff member who preferred to remain anonymous, as she is new to her position and the union. “People are friendly and curious. It’s the Party in the Garden, the biggest fundraising event for the year, so we’re really hoping that message reaches trustees and donors.”

Many of the people joining in the protest were friends and significant others of the union, including a man named Jesus, who declined to give his last name. His girlfriend works for the museum, and is afraid of losing the healthcare coverage on which she depends. “She got into a really bad accident last year,” Jesus explained, “and the healthcare services really helped her out, it’s something that she needs and we all need.” Travis, Jesus’s friend, also there to show solidarity, agreed: “I believe that she works very hard and she deserves more for her work. She stands up all day long.”

The protesters dispersed around 8pm, but not before an organizer issued a parting warning: “If they don’t settle this contract with a fair offer, we will be back.”

The next negotiation between Local 2110 and the Museum’s administration is scheduled for Monday, June 4.

With additional reporting by Benjamin Sutton.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, Godard’s anti-imperialism, in defense of “bad” curating, an inexplicable statue, criminalizing culture wars, and more.

Ilana Novick

Ilana Novick writes about art, culture, politics, and the intersection of the three. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Based, Brokelyn, Policy Shop, The American Prospect, and Alternet.