Fred Wilson’s installation “Guarded View” (1991), featuring four headless mannequins dressed as museum guards, housed in the Whitney’s collection. (photo by Edward Blake via Flickr)

Approximately 185 workers across departments at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City are moving to unionize, citing job insecurity, pandemic-related layoffs, and wage inequities among their major concerns. Representing a broad swath of employees, including conservators, curators, educators, and front-facing staff, Local 2110 UAW filed a petition for a union election yesterday, May 17.

“The layoffs were a wake-up call to the need for better protection, and we realized we would have to band together to negotiate for better working conditions,” said Karissa Francis, who has worked as a visitor service assistant at the museum for four years, in a statement.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Whitney has laid off approximately 20% of its staff, cutting 76 workers in April 2020 and another 15 this February. Like hundreds of institutions across the nation, the museum shuttered last spring to contain the spread of COVID-19 and projected a shortfall of at least $7 million. To mitigate the financial impact of closing its doors, the Whitney received a loan of $5,592,822 from the government’s Payment Protection Program (PPP), a rescue package meant to help businesses retain staff.

In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the Whitney said the museum “respects the staff’s desire to engage in a dialogue about collective bargaining and remains committed to supporting all staff, regardless of union affiliation.”

The news comes as a wave of organizing sweeps the nation’s cultural institutions. Two weeks ago, the entire staff of the Hispanic Society of America in Manhattan also filed a petition for a union election on the basis of job insecurity, stagnant wages, and the loss of a pension plan.

At the Whitney and other museums, unionizing efforts are motivated in part by “a great discrepancy in wages between the staff and the corporate board and leadership,” said Maida Rosenstein of Local 2110 UAW. The amalgamated union represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the New Museum, and the Shed, among others.

“It’s very much a festering thing when you have very talented, educated, and dedicated people who love what they do, but who are paid very little,” Rosenstein told Hyperallergic. “And the pandemic has only laid that even more bare.” Front-facing staff employed part-time are paid little over minimum wage, she said, and even full-time positions in curatorial and other departments generally have low compensation.

“It’s very hard to live in New York on $45,000 a year,” Rosenstein added. “Everything I hear from workers at the Whitney is that they love their jobs, but they simply want to have more security and a voice in their actual working conditions.”

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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...