By 6pm last night, November 15, the temperature in New York City was below 40 degrees, the winds were cutting, and sheets of rain were slapping the pavement. But the weather didn’t dissuade exclusive guests, dressed to the nines, from flocking to the Brooklyn Museum for a VIP opening gala celebrating the institution’s forthcoming Thierry Mugler exhibition, Couturissime. Nor did it dissuade dozens of the museum’s union members who rallied outside with signs and megaphones, drawing attention to the unsatisfactory proposal presented by the museum after nearly a year of negotiations at play.
“Overworked and underpaid” and other such chants emanated from the group over the din of plastic hand-slappers, clanging cowbells, and a 2010s pop playlist on a crunchy-sounding speaker. Staff members represented by UAW Local 2110 gathered last night to inform the gala’s high-profile guests that they feel the museum’s current proposal is unfair and undervalues their labor. This is the union’s second rally, following one on September 28, days after workers filed a charge against the museum with the National Board of Labor Relations, alleging unfair labor practices.
“I want to remind donors and guests that this isn’t a picket, and we’re not trying to impede their enjoyment of the exhibition,” Carmen Hermo, an associate curator of feminist art who has worked at the museum for six years now, told Hyperallergic while passing out buttons and complimenting the ‘glamazons’ heading into the event. “But we do want them to recognize these incredible, smart, expansive, thrilling shows the Brooklyn Museum puts on are put on by real people, right?”
As it stands right now, the museum’s proposal includes a one-time pay adjustment for about 40 to 50 union employees — less than half of the union members represented by UAW Local 2110. Those who fall out of the museum’s criteria for the pay adjustment would be eligible for what the museum calls a 3% wage increase followed by a 1.5% increase for the 2023 and 2024 financial years, if the proposal is accepted in full.
In a statement to Hyperallergic, the Brooklyn Museum said: “Our staff is the lifeblood of the museum. We respect their rights to organize and are confident we will come to a positive conclusion to this process as soon as possible.”
The museum is also accused of dropping the ball when it comes to the part-time staff who facilitate visitor experiences and work in the museum store. The union is seeking permanent positions for said staff members and an hourly wage increase to $25 from the current wage ranging between $16 to $17. The museum has agreed to a raise of $22 an hour so far, but will not commit to permanent positions for those part-timers. At the current rate of inflation, the living wage in New York City is $25.42 an hour, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though many jobs in the art world and other sectors fall below this rate.
“The Brooklyn Museum is getting a reputation as a standout for its low salaries, even in a stereotypically low-paying environment,” Maida Rosenstein, the union’s chief negotiator, told Hyperallergic. She also claimed the museum is trying to deflate the movement’s power by rewriting current union job postings as new, higher-paid manager or director roles. Several full-time positions within the union are listed with a starting salary between $43K and $45K, while new positions outside of the union start at $78K.
As the rain continued to soak anyone caught outside, the union staff maintained their energy throughout, smiling and welcoming the VIPs to enjoy the exhibition while passing out leaflets and union buttons with their iced-over, reddened hands.
“We’re all connected and their role in it should also be to support the workers just as they support the institution,” Hermo told Hyperallergic. “So I think it is symbiotic and interdependent, and I feel like we’re getting really close to people really understanding that. And it’s been thrilling to see the museum world change in its rickety ways.”
Owen O’Brien, a manager in institutional giving and campaigns, was pleased that a lot of the guests seemed to be receptive to the rally considering the status of the exhibition. “We wanted to make sure we were visible at a show like this. A few people have happily taken leaflets, saying that they’re supportive. And multiple people have taken and worn our union buttons into the exhibition in support.”
“We love working at the museum and we love what it stands for,” O’Brien continued. “We just want to make sure that it’s living up to its mission that we all believe in.”
The museum, on its end, told Hyperallergic: “We remain committed to partnering with our staff to achieve an agreement that advances our commitments to wage equity.”
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