Museum workers protest outside of the 58th Carnegie International (all photos Ohad Cadji)

At the Friday, September 23 opening of the 58th Carnegie International — the United States’s oldest biennial — around 60 museum workers protested outside, demanding a living wage. One group held a large banner printed with the words “The Museums Work Because We Do.”

The workers were stationed at the Carnegie Museum of Art, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh (CMP), which also include the Museum of Natural History, the Science Center, and the Andy Warhol Museum.

In what’s become a familiar story, CMP workers across the four institutions unionized almost two years ago but have yet to negotiate a contract. In December 2020, they voted to join the United Steelworkers (a vast union that represents workers in industries ranging from forestry to public service) and officially formed the United Museum Workers.

While still negotiating a contract with museum leadership, the union secured a 2.5% cost of living adjustment for all union members; raised the museums’ lowest hourly pay from $9 to $10 in 2021; and raised it again this year to $12. Despite these victories, the museums’ new minimum wage still lags behind Pittsburgh’s living wage, which is calculated at a little over $16 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a representative of the institution said, “Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh is currently having productive discussions with the United Steelworkers, and we look forward to continuing those discussions as we negotiate a mutually beneficial collective bargaining agreement, which will be our first with the union.”

CMP workers unionized with United Steel Workers in December 2020.

Over 60% of the more than 500 CMP union members, however, make less than $15 an hour, according to a United Steel Workers organizer. “We want every position on our bargaining unit to pay no less than a living wage,” UMW representative Guillermo Perez told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, calling the workers’ proposal “pretty basic.”

In addition to the problem of low wages, more than 70% of CMP union workers are part-time, which bars them from benefits like healthcare.

“I believe the workers that make it possible for the museums to function shouldn’t have to worry about making ends meet every month,” Ohad Cadji, a gallery associate at the Andy Warhol Museum, told Hyperallergic.

“I know so many lives that have been impacted positively by the museum, and I can truly say that those of us who work at the museums do so because we love them,” added Abby Michalowski, who has worked as an educator at the Carnegie Museum of Art for five years. “I think that holding the museums accountable for their payment and treatment of employees is vital to ensuring it continues to uphold its legacy in our community here in Pittsburgh.”

CMP workers are demanding that all museum workers earn a living wage.

A few hours away, workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are also in discussions to negotiate a contract, but after almost two years of talks with museum leadership, workers went on strike yesterday and remain on the line, with no end date in sight.

Pittsburgh’s living wage is $16 an hour, $6 more than CMP’s minimum wage of $10.

Jenise Brown, a part-time educator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, echoed the sentiment of other workers. “We love our jobs, and we love the museums, and we believe that as an employer, they can do much better by us,” Brown told Hyperallergic. “After all, we’re the ones working with the public, and with the collections and exhibits.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.