Member of the Local 30 union at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (all images courtesy Rachel Abrams)

In spring of 2020, when COVID-19 overwhelmed New York and shuttered its art museums and galleries, leadership at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) presented some of its unionized workers with an offer they couldn’t refuse: Give up salary raises in the next two years and, in return, you will not be laid off or terminated.

Fearful of losing their jobs while seeing peers at other museums getting let go in the thousands, the workers of at least one of MoMA’s four labor unions, Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, agreed.

Local 30 represents about 60 art handlers, engineers, preparators, carpenters, and maintenance workers at MoMA. A month and a half into negotiating a new contract with the museum (their contract expired in early August), the workers are now saying that leadership isn’t returning the favor, offering them scant salary raises that don’t match what they had to give up or reflect the spike in inflation and living costs in the city.

A protest poster provided by the Local 30 union reads: “Change is Modern. Change Requires Labor.”

“When the museum asked us to give up contractually agreed upon wage increases for 2020 and 2021, we agreed in order to save jobs and the museum,” Rachel Abrams, a MoMA preparator who worked at the museum for more than 18 years, told Hyperallergic in an interview. “This sacrifice was made to support MoMA in a time of need and uncertainty. We are now simply asking for respectful compensation for the financial, physical, and emotional sacrifices we have made for MoMA.”

To deliver this message, the union parked a protest truck in front of MoMA yesterday, September 28, clad with digital screens that displayed informational slides about the museum’s high earnings and ample endowment (around $1 billion as of June 2021, according to public filings) together with messages like “It’s time to support workers who supported the museum” and “We sacrificed while management is stashing away millions.”

MoMA has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

The wage increases that the workers relinquished were 3% in 2020 and 3.25% in 2021. Now, their goal is to at least recoup those lost raises, but they say they’ve been facing an unsympathetic management. The union’s opening proposal was a 12% salary increase for every worker in the first year, while the museum’s proposal stands at around 3%, according to Robert Wilson, a representative of Local 30.

“We didn’t expect to get 12% but that was our starting point because if we agree to 6.25% in the first year, that would be taking zero this year as it only gets us to where we should have already been.”

Wilson added that the museum “took advantage” of the pandemic and misled the workers by making them believe that their only choice was giving up their salary increases or potentially losing their jobs.

MoMA workers next to Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece “The Starry Night” (1889)

“Most of our members worked the museum during the lockdown because they were needed for a large renovation and for later preparing for the museum to reopen, so the argument that the museum would’ve had to lay them off was disingenuous,” he said.

Abrams confirmed that Local 30 engineers were on site throughout the entire lockdown of 2020 to “ensure the safety and security of MoMA’s priceless collection.”

Mark Warhall, an art handler who has also worked at the museum for more than 18 years, said: “I love my job but am finding it increasingly challenging to live in NYC given the two year’s worth of raises we sacrificed at the beginning of the pandemic, as well as inflationary pressures for rent, food, etc.”

He continued, “It’s very discouraging when you pour every effort into a job that requires a high amount of skill, experience, physical labor, and patience to hear the cost of living increases being offered at this point in the Local 30 negotiations with MoMA.”

Negotiations between the museum and the union will resume in about a week. In the meantime, the workers are using protest and outreach to the media to put pressure on management to move closer to their demands. “MoMA thrives off the labor of every one of us, it is time for our negotiations to reflect our commitment to making MoMA an internationally renowned destination for art,” Abrams said.

Wilson concluded: “These workers have skill sets that take years to develop; these are the people that handle the most valuable assets that MoMA has, in their most vulnerable forms. They’re expecting a little bit more respect.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...