Members of the Guggenheim union outside the museum in Manhattan (courtesy Guggenheim Union)

After more than a year of tense negotiations, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York signed a contract today, February 16, with Local 30, the union representing the museum’s art handlers and facilities staff.

The three-year collective bargaining agreement covers 22 full-time Guggenheim employees — including engineering and facilities professionals and art services, preparation, and fabrication specialists — and 145 on-call staff who are hired to prepare, install, and maintain exhibitions.

Today’s agreement includes an increase in wages for unionized workers and new standards of transparency and parity in scheduling shifts, work rules, and job levels. The two parties also agreed on unionized health care programs for full-time workers at no cost-sharing for the workers.

According to the agreement, workers represented by Local 30 who receive retirement benefits will no longer be required to pay into their retirement plan, but the museum will continue to contribute its share.

“Throughout negotiations, it was clear that management understood the level of work we produce in support of world-class exhibitions, but that they had no intention of compensating us fairly,” said Bryan Cook, a member of the Guggenheim Union, in a conversation with Hyperallergic after today’s agreement.

“We fought them and won an average wage increase of 10%, bonuses, premium-free health insurance for families, transparent scheduling practices, safety improvements, and dignity,” Cook added.

A guerrilla projection on the Guggenheim Museum’s façade in September, 2020 (courtesy the Illuminator)

The workers, who voted to unionize with IUOE (International Union of Operating Engineers) Local 30 in June of 2019, often accused the museum of dragging its feet and negotiating in bad faith. Most recently, they staged a protest at the re-opening of the museum in September after months of closure due to COVID-19. The workers greeted museum visitors with a “protest truck” carrying digital screens with messages that read: “We Deserve a Better Guggenheim,” “Fair Contract Now,” and “#DoBetterGuggenehim.”

Earlier in September, the artist collectives Artists for Workers and the Illuminator projected messages onto the Guggenheim’s facade in solidarity with the union and workers at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The guerrilla projection illuminated the museum’s building with slogans like “Fair Contract,” “Seeking New Management,” and “Open for Exploitation.” The groups held their actions independently of the Guggenheim Union.

During their pressure campaign for a contract, the workers also sent a letter to the Guggenheim’s trustees, urging them to exert their influence with the museum’s “reluctant” management.

In a statement today, Bill Lynn, Business Manager and Financial Secretary of Local 30, said, “In addition to all of the healthcare and financial benefits, the workers are now protected by a contract which will give them a real voice in the workplace and protect them from unfair discipline and includes contract language for a fair call-in process for on-call employees promoting equality.”

Guggenheim’s director Richard Armstrong said in a statement: 

We are pleased to have reached a contract agreement with IUOE Local 30. I am grateful to our skilled colleagues who are members of IUOE Local 30 for their contributions towards fulfilling the museum’s mission. I look forward to an ongoing productive relationship with these talented employees and their union representatives.

For Cook and his peers, the agreement sets a foundation for negotiating better employment conditions in the future.

“We have never received what we deserve, but we all deserve this contract,” the art handler said. “I’m very happy, and look forward to getting even more in 2.5 years.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...