The Whitney Museum of American Art (photo by Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons)

In a rare move for the cultural sector, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City has voluntarily recognized its workers’ new union, Jacobin reports. Approximately 185 workers across departments at the museum announced their intent to organize two weeks ago, citing job insecurity, wage inequities, and pandemic-related layoffs that have resulted in a 20% cut to staff.

“The Whitney has made the decision to extend recognition to the Technical, Office and Professional Union, Local 2110 UAW, AFL-CIO, following the museum’s receipt on May 17th of the Union’s petition to represent some of our employees,” a Whitney spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “We respect the desire of our colleagues to engage in a dialogue about collective bargaining, as is their legal right, and we remain committed to supporting all staff, regardless of affiliation.”

However, Local 2110 UAW says the museum’s framing is misleading. A representative for the amalgamated union told Hyperallergic that the Whitney is seeking to exclude over 60 positions from the union, including roles in Exhibitions, Conservation, and other professional departments; assistant-level positions; temp employees; and anyone listed as having received a “report.”

“Their Museum’s attorney has yet to explain the legal basis for making these positions ineligible for the union,” the representative said in a statement.

“We are glad that the Whitney has not been running an overt ‘Amazon-style’ anti-union campaign but it seems like the Whitney would like to ‘voluntarily recognize’ a much smaller union that will have less negotiating power with the Museum and will keep many workers from having union protection,” they added.

While a growing number of cultural institutions have seen their employees organize in recent years, the museum sector is better known for its resistance to rather than its embrace of labor unions. At the New Museum in New York, for instance, workers successfully formed a union only after months of strained negotiations; last year, they filed a complaint with the NLRB accusing the museum of laying off bargaining unit members under the guise of cost-cutting measures. (The New Museum denied the claim.)

“I was inspired by the New Museum fight,” Karissa Francis, a visitor services assistant at the Whitney who led the unionizing effort, told Jacobin. Along with a group of coworkers, she began looking into organizing last fall, as the pandemic laid bare underlying disparities in museum employment.

Her annual salary is $30,000, about $19 an hour, Francis said in the interview, citing pay equity and access to health insurance among her primary reasons for joining the union.

“I believe the last time I got a raise was two years ago,” she said. “I’ve worked there for four years. My starting wage was $16.”

“It’s no secret that our workers are very low paid across the board,” Francis added. “That, coupled with concerns about health care, came to the forefront during the pandemic — we might be pushed out of our jobs, we might not have a job soon, can you afford to get sick? Things like that are always in the back of your mind.”

Editor’s note 5:32pm EST: This article has been updated to include quotes from Local 2110 UAW.

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...