Workers at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle held a “socially distant picket” outside the institution on Friday, April 10, to protest the termination of one-third of the museum’s workforce due to losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The protesters claim that two union representatives have been specifically targeted while negotiations for a contract are still underway.
Earlier on Friday, 21 workers received notice from the museum that all non-exempt part-time and on-call employees have been laid off.
Donning face covers and gloves and abiding the rules of social distancing, the workers picketed with signs that read “The Frye Must Negotiate” and “Frye Art Museum, Union Buster” among other slogans. In a statement on Friday, they demanded that the Frye negotiates with the union “to reinstate the laid off workers and provide pandemic pay and health insurance until the museum is able to re-open.”
Formed last June, the Art Workers Union (AWU) represents security guards at the museum. Union negotiations between the workers and the museum’s management have been on hold since a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses was implemented in Washington on March 16.
In an email to Hyperallergic, the Frye Art Museum said it estimates losses of over $100,000 between March and May due to the “unprecedented economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic” which has “significantly reduced the museum’s sources of funding for the foreseeable future.”
Regarding the layoffs, the museum said, “This was a painful decision, not reached lightly. The Museum has and will continue to pursue all options before further employment is affected. Our goal is to ensure the longevity of the Frye so that we may continue to serve our community, as we have for the past 68 years as Seattle’s only free art museum, for many decades to come.”
Caitlin Lee, a laid-off founding member of the AWU and a prominent member of the bargaining committee, was at the forefront of Friday’s protest.
“The fact that the Frye is announcing layoffs, targeting members of our contract bargaining committee like myself, without consulting the Union at all over their unilateral decision after we reached out to them about their covid-19 response multiple times, is a clear union-busting maneuver on their part,” said Lee. “We formed the AWU because our members were already struggling to live in this city on poverty wages. Now some of us are at risk of homelessness and worse.”
Joseph Rosa, director and CEO of the Frye Art Museum, responded to Lee’s claims in an email to Hyperallergic saying, “The staff lay-offs implemented on April 10 impacted 21 employees, two of whom were members of the Art Workers Union. Union affiliation had no bearing on the lay-offs, which applied to all staff members classified as non-exempt part-time or on-call employees.”
John Edens, another AWU bargaining committee member argued, “it’s ridiculous that they’re laying off staff when the museum isn’t dependent on revenue in the first place—it’s a free museum. They’d rather pay the board over $100 an hour than take care of the workers that made the Frye Art Museum great in the first place.”
A spokesperson for the Frye told Hyperallergic that the six members of the museum’s Board of Trustees have decided to suspend receiving their stipends. The museum also announced that upper management, including the director/CEO, has taken an unspecified salary cut effective April 6, 2020.
Meanwhile, the workers launched an online petition calling on the Frye to “be a model employer and a leader in the museum world” by reinstating the 21 laid-off workers and providing them with full pandemic pay and health coverage through the remainder of the shutdown.
“I feel betrayed,” Lee told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “Prior to the firing, they said we’re all in this together and that we’re going to figure this out. But instead of consulting with the union they just went ahead and fired us without a warning.”
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The board receives stipends? How widespread is that in the non-profit cultural institution world. Most museums, large and small, have volunteer boards who might be reimbursed for travel and other direct costs for participating in mandated activities. But if a board member doesn’t contribute at level that is personally significant there is something very wrong with the governance model they are using. And, the union members are right; before laying off staff, the Board needs to step up and, at the very least, donate whatever stipends they receive.
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