Union members handed out leaflets at the opening of a Hispanic Society exhibition at the National Arts Club. (courtesy UAW Local 2110)

Workers at New York City’s Hispanic Museum and Library (also known as the Hispanic Society of America) will go on strike indefinitely starting Monday, March 27. The union voted to authorize the action yesterday with a 78% margin after it rejected leadership’s “last, best, final offer.”

The museum — situated on West 155th Street in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood — houses a collection of Spanish and Portuguese art housed in a stunning Beaux Arts building.

The Hispanic Society’s small staff of around 20 people organized in July 2021 with UAW Local 2110, the wide-reaching union that now represents cultural workers at institutions including the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Guggenheim Museum. Negotiations with Hispanic Society leadership began in September 2021, but now, nearly a year and a half later, the museum’s workers are still operating without a contract.

Negotiations grew tense, and the union has filed four unfair labor practice charges against museum administration in the last year. Workers cite healthcare as the biggest hurdle to reaching an agreement.

“We’ve accepted lower wages than we could earn at other institutions because of the benefits,” librarian Javier Milligan said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. Patrick Lenaghan, a print and photography curator who has worked at the institution for 28 years, told Hyperallergic about a longstanding “verbal agreement” in which Hispanic Society workers agreed to wages below the going market rate in exchange for pensions and free healthcare.

The Hispanic Society did not respond to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.

The workers unionized after the administration took away pensions. Now their free healthcare is at risk, too. Throughout contract negotiations, the union has pushed for the museum to continue covering insurance premiums. Workers say that leadership’s proposed wage increases do not financially compensate for the new healthcare costs on the table.

The union also wants raises of five percent, four percent, and four percent over the course of the three-year contract. Lenaghan said that Hispanic Society workers make roughly between $40,000 and $100,000 annually and have not received raises since negotiations began in 2021 (and that he has not received a pay increase since 2018).

The Hispanic Society has been closed for construction since 2017. (via Flickr)

The Hispanic Society has been largely closed to the public since 2017 for renovations, although the library has opened intermittently and an exhibition space displays temporary shows. In a February letter to the museum’s trustees, the union lamented that leadership has “failed to meet deadlines for the reopening of the library” and that “no realistic date exists for the reopening of the museum with its permanent collection fully installed.” The museum says it will reopen in April, but Lenaghan pointed out that much of its collection is on loan.

“They say that,” said Lenaghan. “But we’ve been told December, we’ve been told so many moving dates.” He added that with so many of its works on display at other institutions, the reopened Hispanic Society will be “disillusioning” to visitors who knew the collection or remember how it was hung before the closure. 

Lenaghan called the holdings “the finest collection outside of Spain” and pointed out that the museum’s “skeletal” workforce bars the institution from functioning to its potential and will ultimately only harm the collection.

“If you work in this field, the chance to work with this material is astonishing,” he added. He thinks the collection is on par with those of Morgan Library or the Frick, but “without the infrastructure.”

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.