LOS ANGELES — On Monday, November 25, employees at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) submitted union cards to the National Labor Relations Board, following last Friday’s announcement formally declaring their intention to form a union with the American Federation of State, Federal and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). This action comes just weeks after employees at the Marciano Art Foundation attempted to unionize, which was followed days later by massive layoffs and the shuttering of the foundation. The foundation cited “low attendance” as the reason for the closure.
If successful, MOCA would be only the second museum in Los Angeles to unionize, alongside the Museum of Tolerance.
Unlike the recent unionization effort at the Marciano Art Foundation, which was comprised solely of Visitor Services Associates, the movement at MOCA includes employees from several departments: Visitor Engagement, Education, Operations, Exhibitions, Development, Communications, Retail, and Audio/Visual. Janitorial and Security workers are not eligible to be part of this union since they are not employed by MOCA, but subcontracted from outside firms, according to Carlos Vellanoweth, an organizer with AFSCME District Council 36.
The employees who spoke with Hyperallergic cited low wages relative to experience, lack of benefits, schedule instability, and high turnover as some of the reasons behind their decision to unionize. John Lee, a gallery attendant, told Hyperallergic he makes $14.75/hour, which is just above minimum wage, while an A/V worker who asked to remain anonymous said they make $17.50/hour, well below the $22.50/hour they make at their job at another museum. “MOCA has a reputation for some of the lowest wages for AV staff,” they said.
In an email to Hyperallergic, a MOCA representative said, “It is certainly not true for our visitor engagement staff (for example) where we provide leading wages in the field. For that group, we understand The Broad pays $14.50/hour and that MAF was paying $14.25/hour. MOCA currently pays frontline staff $14.75/hour, and we recently announced a significant pay raise across multiple departments, effective January 1, 2020. MOCA believes in providing competitive and fair compensation for all of our staff.”
“One of the main things is to function more as employees and less as independent contractors,” said Olivia Leiter, who works in the Education Department leading exhibition tours. “When shows go down, a lot of people are out of work for awhile. It affects a lot of front line staff,” she continued. Both Lee and the A/V worker said their hours were capped at 30 hours a week. “Our main complaint as a department has to do with temporary worker status,” they told Hyperallergic, “which seems bogus or illegal, just based on how often I’m in the building.”
John Lee, the gallery attendant, told Hyperallergic that Amy Shapiro, MOCA’s new Deputy Director who started in September, recently tried to address some of their concerns, offering raises to $16.50/hour as of January and seating so they wouldn’t have to stand throughout their shifts. Her gesture came directly after the union push at the Marciano Art Foundation, Lee says.
“The turnover rate for the Exhibition team is significantly high which is a clear sign of us being seen as disposable,” read a statement provided to Hyperallergic by a member of the exhibitions staff. “There are no reassurances when it comes to our jobs because management has the ability to take any employee off their call-list without notifying them. Our roles as temporary workers were unfortunately designed in a way that does not protect us or allow us to have a voice.” The statement adds that the majority of the exhibitions team does “not have health benefits, vacation, or holiday pay.”
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WE JUST WENT PUBLIC!!! This morning over 50 of MOCA’s workers came together across departments to form a union. We stand in solidarity with workers at the Marciano Art Foundation, the New Museum, the Guggenheim, SFMOMA, MoMA, The Met, Berkeley Art Museum, the LA Museum of Tolerance, the Frye Museum, and the many factions of workers all over the world whose labor has been undervalued. #afscme
“While we respect the right of employees to decide whether or not they wish to be represented by a union, we do not believe that this union is in the best interest of our employees or the museum,” reads a statement from the museum provided to Hyperallergic via email.
MOCA has gone through a notably rocky period over the past decade, beginning with near-calamitous financial instability in 2008, the divisive tenure and exit of Director Jeffrey Deitch, the cancellation of the 2018 gala, and last year’s firing of curator Helen Molesworth, followed by the departure of Director Philippe Vergne. The appointment of Klaus Biesenbach to the directorship signaled a hopeful turn for some (despite initial tone-deaf comparisons of Los Angeles to Berlin). According to some of the workers Hyperallergic spoke with, they hoped the new director would address the longstanding issues that they say have plagued the institution for years. “He’s made it clear he cares about programming, education, outreach,” said Leiter.
“Once Klaus Biesenbach was hired, we hoped there would be changes, which we haven’t seen,” said the A/V employee. “When the museum said they were going to be free, it was seen as a force for good in the community. If they want to do more than just gesture towards high-minded ideas, and actually enact them, it has to involve worker well-being.”
Another anonymous insider described the current situation in more colorful terms. “It’s like a person that inherits a Ferrari, takes it out for a ride, then discovers it’s run by hamsters.”
The A/V worker said a consultant name Jon Wheeler was brought in by Biesenbach to address the legacy of the wounds the institution has weathered.
“For most of the last year, we have begun a concerted effort to understand internal workplace matters, along with a commitment to address them,” a MOCA representative confirmed. “As part of that effort, we engaged Jon Wheeler to focus on potential improvements to workplace structure and culture – both of which are residual effects of historical instability from multiple MOCA leadership changes.”
“[Wheeler] said, ‘Money flows down after culture changes,'” the worker told Hyperallergic, which they took to mean that institutional healing beginning at the top was prioritized over the pragmatic needs of the staff. “Part of the union is looking forward and making sure wages, safety, well-being, inclusivity, justice for workers are not something that can be gambled when the museum goes through turbulence.”
Editors note 12/3/19 11:27am PST: This article has been updated to incorporate additional comments on behalf of MOCA.