Local 30 union members and supporters outside MoMA PS1 this Sunday (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

On a blustery Sunday just before noon, the first visitors to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City were greeted by a giant, grey inflatable rat with sinister pink eyes. Men and women in blue sweatshirts emblazoned with “Local 30” in white letters, fanned out across Jackson Avenue, handing out fliers that said, in part, “The MoMA PS1 art installers and building maintenance crew are fighting for a fair contract that protects and improves their jobs at the museum.”

This November 18th demonstration was not, as one tourist hoped, part of an exhibition, but rather, as her friend helpfully explained of the rat, “a union thing.”

That “union thing” comprised of approximately 40 members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 30, plus a revolving crowd of supporters and museumgoers gathered in front of PS1 to raise awareness of their ongoing fight for a new contract with MoMA, including hourly pay raises for the union art handlers and maintenance workers at PS1.

Their wages, workers say, are not on par with those at MoMA, despite the fact that PS1 is a MoMA satellite and the workers are all part of the same union.

“What we’re looking for is parity with the sister museum in Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art,” Bob Wilson, Business Representative for Local 30 told Hyperallergic. “These workers are not paid the rate that other institutions pay.” The disparity, Wilson explained, is up to almost 50%. PS1 workers are paid between $20-$30 per hour, while those at sister institution MoMA are paid up to $47.

The negotiations have been ongoing since Local 30’s last contract expired on October 31. Wilson described those talks as “strained,” explaining that “Management has been holding a very hard position…the minimum rates in the contract have not gone up over the last three years at all.” Still, he says he remains hopeful and the union is “going to continue to negotiate in good faith.”

In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, the museum says:

“MoMA PS1 has a terrific team of installation and maintenance staff, and we are committed to reaching a new contract with Local 30. We continue to make progress in negotiations, and have our next session scheduled for later this month. It’s been a productive process and we’re confident we’ll arrive at an amicable resolution.”

The union rat outside MoMA PS1

“Management should be out here. Management should be embarrassed,” a union representative with a bullhorn shouted at museumgoers. “The art community should stick together. When you go in there, let them know that you support the workers at PS1.”

Wilson encouraged visitors to call PS1’s Chief Operating Officer Jose Ortiz, whose phone number was printed on the flyer, to tell him to support the union.

As the representative spoke, a siren went off, and another protester shouted, “That’s the fairness police.”

Protesters emphasized that they generally enjoy working for PS1. The low hourly pay, however, combined with the fact that PS1 hires workers on a freelance, per-exhibition basis makes it unsustainable.

“It’s very fulfilling to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself, to be a part of this community, to work with world-class artists, and to give back to the community at large, said Chris Haag, shop steward for Local 30. He added, “A lot of people have been doing this for years and their rates at PS1 have not gone up with the rest of the art world. Now we’re losing money when we come and work here, but we really love working here.”

Local 2110 UAW staff from Manhattan’s MoMA came to show solidarity with fellow union members. “As far as the installation of exhibitions, the maintenance of exhibitions, all those things that the general public comes to see, [they are] run and done by union people,” said Steven Burkhardt, lead preparator at MoMA. “We work extremely hard, we work a lot of hours, and we help to make the museum what it is.”

As of 2 pm, no museum management had emerged, but the crowd had grown, and more passersby became genuinely engaged with the action, discussing the protest.

Wilson hopes that when the union returns to the bargaining table at the end of this month, that management will align their wages with their publicly expressed values: “If PS1 wants to claim to be a progressive institution and support this community,” he said, “then they need to make some leaps and bounds as to how they treat the workers that work in this museum.”

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.