On Tuesday evening, March 29, the sun gradually dropped into the Hudson River at the end of Gansevoort Street, turning a chilly spring day into a frigid, wintry night. Logging temperatures 20 degrees below average, a crowd of about 30 unionized staff at the Whitney Museum of American Art and other New York City museums braved the cold, brandishing stark black-and-white signs with messages like “Whitney Workers Want Fair Wages” and “Whitney Workers Build Biennials” as they flapped around rowdily in the harsh wind.
Dressed in neutral tones and utilitarian gear, the malcontent workers were easy to discern from the soiree’s proper guests, some of whom were distinguished enough to be ushered into the hallowed halls of the Whitney as early as 6pm. These priority guests poured out of sleekly chauffeured black vehicles, outfitted in thick furs, bedazzled booties, and weighty jewels, some wearing looks that surely graced runways this season. The occasion? The VIP opening of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, which staggered its invites so that its most prominent invitees would not need to bear the indignity of the wait outside.
Implementing tiered schedules is an old habit for a museum that does the same with its museum employees, a system that facilities supervisor Sandy Laporte called “archaic.”
“We just want two big things: recognition and compensation. We’re very humble people,” Laporte told Hyperallergic. But when it comes to compensation, he explained, “facilities, visitor services, and a couple of other departments aren’t tier level,” meaning that they are at the bottom of the hierarchy.
“Each and every one of us plays a critical role — and we just want our pay, our benefits, to reflect that. Just the way people treat us and look at us,” Lawrence Hernandez, a registration assistant at the Whitney, told Hyperallergic. “We want to feel it — more than just words.” Speaking about crates that he has seen the museum use for the transportation of art, Hernandez says that “there might be crates that cost more than what somebody makes [in a year.]”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the Whitney said the museum “welcomed Local 2110 last summer and has been negotiating with them in good faith since then.”
“We’ve already made progress on a number of points,” the spokesperson added. “We look forward to continuing our discussions at our regularly scheduled meeting with them next week.”
Protesting workers politely approached guests — some of whom, in imminent danger of being pestered, beelined to the stanchions that facilities workers had set up that day for the event for safety — with flyers.
On one side, the flyers read “WHITNEY MUSEUM UNION!” in the museum’s thickset Helvetica font. On the other, they described the plight of Whitney museum staff, half of whom earn less than $20 per hour and many of whom are classified as temporary workers and therefore receive no benefits. Despite being in contract negotiations with management since November 2021, the word has been mum from leadership on their proposals.
“We presented our wage compensation proposals in January, and we haven’t received any feedback from management,” Zoe Tippl, exhibition coordinator at the Whitney, told Hyperallergic. “Also, there hasn’t been a lot of movement on the other proposals, like benefits, overtime, family leave, and extended bereavement leave,” she said.
“We don’t have a lot of representation across the table from management. We’re only negotiating with our HR department,” Tippl added, a complaint that was echoed by several other workers at the event. Denis Suspitsyn, a photographer at the Whitney, reported that meetings that were very important to the union and its members were treated with indifference by museum leadership, who routinely sent the same representative from HR. “Everything falls on deaf ears,” he lamented.
“In this case, the process really reflects the substance,” Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110 UAW, the union representing workers at the Whitney, told Hyperallergic.
Museum workers’ criticisms of management contradict the image that the museum has clamored to put forward of itself on labor issues. In June last year, the Whitney issued a press release announcing that it had “voluntarily recognized” its workers’ union.
“They didn’t voluntarily recognize us — it was misreported,” Rosenstein said. “Every time somebody new comes to the museum, they reconfigure the title and tell them they’re not in the union. They act like they can just keep bullshitting us.”
Suspitsyn added that the museum has consistently taken credit for progressive positions that workers have quietly and tirelessly pressured it to take. “The tactic is to ignore us until the last possible minute, and then they just throw us a bone,” he said. He also cited the fact that even when the museum recognized the union, it “chose to refuse [union recognition of] so many positions at the museum for no real reason.”
Employees at the Guggenheim Museum and the Brooklyn Museum among others were also present, expressing solidarity with Whitney workers. “It’s such a great moment to build that solidarity because so many museums are unionizing right now, and are in relatively similar stages. We compare notes to understand the tactics that management’s using to stall,” Tippl said, toting a sign alongside Julie Smitka, an associate producer at the Guggenheim.
Rosenstein highlighted another major concern for museum workers: the Whitney’s classification of employees as temporary workers even when they have worked there for months.
“It’s one of the dirty little secrets of the museum world that it relies on really low paid labor — really precarious people in really precarious positions,” Rosenstein said. “The Whitney is one of the key abusers of this: many people are part-time or they’re categorized as temporary. They classify people as temps so they won’t be eligible for the union, and dissuade them from having any stake in this workplace. It’s psychological warfare.”
There is an irony in the fact that this edition of the Whitney Biennial, organized under the title Quiet As It’s Kept, is meant “to reflect these precarious and improvised times.” The workers have chosen not to keep quiet.
“Were they responding and negotiating fairly, we wouldn’t be out here. But we feel no choice but to amplify the message,” Rosenstein said.
Editor’s Note 3/30/22, 5:00pm EDT: This article has been updated to include a statement by a spokesperson for the Whitney Museum.
It would be interesting to know whether this has affected the Whitney’s membership numbers. I love the Whitney. That said, I know of several people who are waiting to renew their museum membership. I decided to wait until after at least the Biennial Preview to get a sense of what is happening, as there has been little news regarding the results of negotiations.
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