For months, workers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum have been negotiating a contract with their employer with no ability to reach an agreement. Earlier this week, after negotiations hit a stalemate, the recently unionized workers sent a letter to the Guggenheim’s trustees urging them to wield their influence on the museum’s “reluctant” management.
In June of 2019, workers at the Guggenheim voted to join Local 30, the union representing installers and maintenance workers at New York’s MoMA PS1. The union represents more than 100 workers at the Guggenheim, including art handlers and facilities staff working in exhibition construction.
In a letter obtained by Hyperallergic, the workers entreat the trustees to intervene in the negotiations by encouraging Elizabeth Duggal, the museum’s deputy director and chief operating officer, to “attend more bargaining sessions and lead her team in finding solutions to the issues that matter to her employees.”
“While there has been some progress, the Museum administration is not demonstrating dedication to higher standards for all of us that include: wage scales that are commensurate with other leading New York City museums, benefits that provide for families and dignified retirement plans,” the union’s letter reads. “We are committed to negotiating in good faith with the goal of reaching a fair agreement, but the administration must share the same goal and dedication for this process to work. A continued reluctance to negotiate benefit plans we have consistently proposed, for example, will not get us to a successful conclusion of this process.”
“All of us that work at the Guggenheim care deeply about the institution,” the letter continues. “Many of us have worked at the Guggenheim for decades and are now struggling to keep up with the cost of living in New York City. This is no longer sustainable.”
A negotiation session that was scheduled for today, March 13, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yesterday, the Guggenheim joined a number of other major New York art institutions — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum, among others — in closing its doors to the public until further notice.
In an email to Hyperallergic, a Guggenheim spokesperson said, “The museum is supporting salaried and hourly employees during this period; we are in a fluid and unprecedented situation and continue to assess circumstances based on available information. The safety and wellbeing of our employees is of utmost priority.”
Negotiations between the museum and its workers began in October of 2019. Workers involved in the negotiations say that while progress has been made on a number of issues, the management remains adamantly averse to their proposals concerning health care plans, wages, retirement, and other working conditions.
“From the beginning of this process, the Guggenheim has fought the worker’s union,” Andres Puerta, one of Local 30’s representatives in the negotiations, told Hyperallergic in an interview. According to Puerta, the museum’s resistance began last summer, ahead of the union vote, when it hired the “anti-union” law firm Epstein Becker and Green, and held meetings with the workers to discourage them from supporting the union. “The museum continues to fight the workers in the negotiations,” he said.
In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson with the Guggenheim wrote:
Since receiving initial proposals from IUOE Local 30 late in 2019, we have made counterproposals to the union representatives and have exchanged ideas with them about issues important to our staff and the Museum. We have held four bargaining sessions so far in 2020. We believe these meetings have been respectful and productive, and additional bargaining sessions are scheduled. We remain optimistic that we will reach a positive resolution that is good for the Museum and for the talented employees represented by Local 30.
A major point of disagreement is the workers’ demand to join Local 30’s healthcare plan. In this plan, the museum participates with the union in covering the plan’s expenses, sparing workers all deductible payments. As of now, only full-time workers (about 20 workers in the union) in the museum have access to health insurance, for which they pay a 15% premium, in addition to deductibles. In comparison, workers at MoMA who joined the union’s healthcare after their negotiations with the museum, pay nothing for their healthcare plans. According to the Puerta, the Guggenheim rejected the offer.
“The plan would be roughly cost-neutral to the employer,” he said. “Whatever the Guggenheim spends now for these full-time workers, the union is meeting them at that amount. The Guggenheim continues to make excuses for not providing better benefit plans for the workers while they can clearly do it.”
To this, the museum’s spokesperson said, “Healthcare is one of the benefits in the agreement currently under negotiation by the Museum’s bargaining team and representatives from Local 30.”
Wages are another contentious issue in the negotiations. Last year, Hyperallergic reported that the Guggenheim’s art handlers suffered from stagnant wages, inconsistent schedules, and exhausting hours. Most art handlers at the museum were making $25 per hour while their colleagues at MoMA PS1 receive $32.50 per hour.
“There’s not a lot of goodwill,” a worker at the museum, who preferred to stay anonymous, told Hyperallergic. According to the worker, a meeting on wages in November marked a turning point in the negotiations. Responding to the workers’ demand to raise their wages, the museum claimed to have no resources to fund the increase and proposed to involve a mediator from the National Labor Relations Board in the negotiations. “This basically means that negotiations are over before they brought any counter-proposal,” the worker said. “That was the point when we all got furious. They just wanted us to go away.”
“It’s very hard to believe that an organization that has close to $80 million in revenue last year, and that is open seven days a week, doesn’t have what it takes to pay the workers living wages in New York City,” said Puerta. “The workers want their wages to be closer to what the industry standard is.” (The museum declined to comment on this specific issue.)
The workers also complain about bias in the scheduling of on-call shifts. “The management wants to call people to work without any objective basis,” Puerta said. “The workers complained in the negotiations that installers are being called to work based on favoritism; meaning based on relationships and friendships between some workers and the managers. It’s not a fair process to give people work.”
Puerta added that an “objective scheduling proposal” based on a seniority scale was rejected by the museum and that the museum said it prefers to continue calling art handlers to work “based on skill,” but declined to describe in writing which skills they attribute to certain workers. “We feel that people should have an equal opportunity to work,” Puerta said. (Guggenheim declined to comment on this subject.)
“We are very conscious of the needs of the museum in all our proposals,” the anonymous worker said. “We’re happy to keep negotiating but the management seems interested in seeing how far they can take just saying no to us.”