Brooklyn Museum Union workers staged an action at last night's Open House. (all photos Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

On the evening of Thursday, September 28, dozens of Brooklyn Museum union workers lined the institution’s grand entrance, chanting “overworked and underpaid” and “ancient art, not ancient wages.” Visitors to the museum’s Open House, an event celebrating the revamped Asian and Islamic art galleries, streamed in through different entrances in an attempt to circumvent the protestors.

Employees at the Brooklyn Museum officially unionized in August 2021 and began contract negotiations with museum leadership in January of this year. While the two parties have reached tentative agreements on some non-economic issues, they have yet to come to terms on healthcare and wages.

The day before their protest, the union announced that they had filed an Unfair Labor Practices charge against the museum with the National Board of Labor Relations, which oversaw their 2021 election into United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110. UAW Local 2110 represents employees at a score of other other cultural institutions, including the Whitney, the Dia Art Foundation, and the New Museum.

“There just hasn’t been enough movement on the part of the museum to meet us where we’re at,” Liz St. George, an assistant curator in the decorative arts department who sits on the union’s bargaining committee, told Hyperallergic during the protest. “We feel on the bargaining committee that we’ve made concessions and we’ve made proposals that the museum is just not responding to. With this action, we want to put a little pressure on the museum to come to the table.”

The union started contract negotiations with museum leadership in January.
The Brooklyn Museum Union is fighting for higher wage increases across the board.

Among the union’s demands are a minimum 7% wage increase (set retroactively to July 1) and 4% raises in both 2023 and 2024. According to UAW, the museum is currently offering a 3% increase, a 1.5% increase in 2023 and 2024, and a one-time adjustment that would be applicable to select workers.

A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that although they cannot comment on the specifics of the ongoing negotiations, the museum has proposed a 9% average wage increase. UAW emphasized that this 9% figure is an average and would leave more than half of the union’s workers with only a 3% raise. This increase would fall far below the sky-high inflation rate — calculated at 8.3% from August 2021 to August 2022.

“We remain committed to partnering with our staff to achieve an agreement that advances our commitments to wage equity,” a Brooklyn Museum spokesperson said in a statement. “The museum recently approved a FY2023 operating budget that dedicates nearly $4M in new investments in wage and benefit improvements for all employees,” they added, a result of a “comprehensive wage equity project.”

Visitors to the museum largely bypassed the protesting union workers.
St. George said that many of the museum’s workers are drawn to the institution because of its social justice mission.

St. George said that one of the biggest drivers for organizing was the museum’s staggering employee turnover rate. “It’s a constant revolving door,” she said. “Which is something that we’re trying to remediate.”

Owen O’Brien, an individual giving manager in the museum’s Development department, told Hyperallergic that high employee turnover, coupled with what he sees as underpayment, led him to join the union and take a position on its bargaining committee. O’Brien said that pay is especially poor for part-time workers.

Emma Dematteo, a visitors service associate, is one of those part-time employees. She’s been at the museum since 2018 when she was hired as a temporary worker, and excluding a brief stint at the Morgan Library, Dematteo has worked at the Brooklyn Museum “almost [her] entire adult life,” since she was 21.

“I feel like I’ve grown up here,” Dematteo said. “It’s the people here. I always felt really supported and nourished.” Now, Dematteo only works at the museum on occasion and has taken up a job as a nanny. “It pays the bills,” Dematteo said, adding that she is paid $17 an hour at the Brooklyn Museum. The living hourly wage in New York City, as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is $25.42.

“Organizing comes from a deep care and passion for museum work and this institution in particular,” St. George said, adding that many workers are drawn to the Brooklyn Museum for its espoused social justice mission. “This is just about holding the museum accountable to its lip-service to social justice.”

As workers lined the museum’s entrance, another group of union members stood next to Eastern Parkway near an NYPD police car stationed outside the protest, waving signs at cars passing by on the busy street. Their placards read “Art workers won’t kiss ass” and “You can’t eat prestige.”

Drivers honked in response and pedestrians stopped to chat with the rallying workers.

“We do this because we love and care about the museum,” St. George said. “We care about our work here and now, but also what future people coming to the museum will encounter.”

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.