Museum workers rallying outside the New Museum (image courtesy New Museum Union, photo by Gabe Gordon)

Last week, Congress passed a sweeping $2 trillion relief bill aiming to alleviate the financial burdens of COVID-19 on the US economy, including the arts and culture sectors. Representing only a fraction of the American Alliance of Museums’ $4 billion ask for nonprofit institutions, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allots a combined $200 million to major national arts organizations tasked with distributing the money.

Another less-discussed point in the federal stimulus package may also have ramifications for art institutions: a stipulation of union neutrality for loan recipients. As furloughs and layoffs continue in an industry ravaged by coronavirus-related closures, the role of unions has taken center stage; in one recently relished victory attributed in part to union efforts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to pay its 2,200-person staff through May 1.

Under Section 4003(c) of the CARES Act, eligible borrowers applying for a direct loan under the new legislation shall “remain neutral in any union organizing effort for the term of the loan.” Although a definition of neutrality is not provided, the language likely protects workers from union-busting techniques, such as employers holding captive audience meetings.

The provision applies to both businesses and nonprofits, but there’s significant fine print: it extends uniquely to companies employing between 500 and 10,000 workers. That includes institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), for example, but leaves out the New Museum, where unionized workers achieved a wage increase after months of strained talks and fruitless bargaining. And union neutrality is only expected of loan recipients — not of those receiving emergency supplemental funding, such as the respective $75 million earmarked for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Art + Museum Transparency (AMT), an activist group of art and museum workers, believes expanding the provision beyond its limited domain is critical during the public health crisis.

“The CARES Act defines mid-size as employing 500-10,000 people, so if we’re talking about museum and arts workers, that would cover many of the larger museums, auction houses, colleges, and universities in the country, but not the smaller museums, galleries, magazines, and other organizations where arts workers are employed,” the group told Hyperallergic. “Employees in smaller organizations have the same rights to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 as those in larger organizations.”

“We also believe the provision should extend to aid given to non-profits beyond loans,” AMT continued. “Taxpayer money should never fund union-busting, and extending this provision would help ensure that these employers commit to not doing so should their employees choose to exercise their federally granted right to unionize by democratic election.”

The pandemic’s devastating impact on the cultural sector has shed light on art workers’ varying levels of precariousness, prompting organized calls for reform. Last week, the Guggenheim Union spoke out against the museum’s decision to pay on-call, or freelance, employees only through the end of March, while continuing to compensate regular staff into April. Institutions’ responses to union organizing at a time when the sector is at high risk could set important precedents for negotiations moving forward.

“Aside from the specific provision of the CARES Act, museums and arts organizations must understand that employer neutrality in worker unionization and cooperation with existing unions are more important now than ever,” added AMT. “This is not the time to back unions into a corner. When workers have nothing left to lose and are facing the prospect of lower (or no) wages and precarious health care, they will respond with forceful actions like walkouts and strikes.”

“Museums should also recognize that the way they treat employees now will determine how cooperative new unions are when they eventually come together because it is WHEN, not if, more museum unions form,” the group concluded.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...