Labor organizing in the art world gained a big win on Thursday night when workers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum voted to unionize. Petitioners including art handlers and facilities staff working in construction will join Local 30, a chapter of the International Union of Operating Engineers also representing installers and maintenance workers at New York’s MoMA PS1.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” an art handler at the museum told Hyperallergic, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he still feared retaliation from his employers. “Workers were able to unite behind a movement despite extensive attempts to exploit divisions by Guggenheim management. It signals a future ability to create a strong contract that benefits all of us equally.”
The Guggenheim union will represent about 90 workers at the museum. Thursday saw 77 votes counted, with 57 workers voting for the union and 20 voting against it. The decision follows several recent attempts by arts workers to organize for better wages and benefits in an industry notorious for low salaries and little chance of upward mobility.
“The Guggenheim respects the right of employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union and encouraged all eligible employees to vote,” a museum spokesperson had said in a statement. “The museum is committed to maintaining a fair, respectful, and positive work environment for all Guggenheim employees, whether or not they chose to be represented by a union. We recognize and appreciate the contributions of the talented staff who bring our mission to life every day.”
But as talk of unionization proceeded, the Guggenheim had taken measures that union-seekers considered hostile toward their cause, including holding meetings to provide their employees with “relevant facts around the situation,” according to an email sent by the Guggenheim’s management. The museum also retained Epstein Becker Green, an employment law firm whose services include “employment, labor & workforce management,” according to its website. According to the museum, the firm has been working with them since 2017.
Two weeks ago, Hyperallergic reported that the Guggenheim’s art handlers suffered from stagnant wages, inconsistent schedules, and exhausting hours. For example, most art handlers at the museum are making $25 per hour while their colleagues at MoMA PS1 receive $32.50 per hour — a 30 percent difference in pay. According to one employee, a veteran carpenter at the Guggenheim sliced his hand open on a table saw while preparing for an exhibition in fall 2017 because of exhaustion from the difficult work schedule.
“The scheduling is such that they will book us for six weeks of work, and then we might get there and be told not to come in next week,” Eric Heist, an art handler at the institution explained to Hyperallergic over the phone. “There’s no recourse here. It’s about lack of transparency; we have no autonomy and no voice. If we enter negotiations, then we can set a standard.”
That line of reasoning has become common for workers looking for a fairer deal with their employers. Staff at the New Museum, MoMA PS1, SFMOMA, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Tenement Museum, the Frye Art Museum, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) are all in different steps of the process toward getting recognition from their employers.
Recently, employees at the New Museum rallied outside their institution in an attempt to bring management to the negotiating table. A similar challenge now awaits workers at the Guggenheim: Will management recognize their union?