Workers at the Whitney Museum Move to Form a Union

Employees of the Whitney Museum of American Art are the latest group of museum workers in the city to take steps toward forming a union.

They are also the most recent example of museum employees who have chosen to organize under the wing of a union not everyone would associate with the art world: the United Automobile Workers.

A petition asking for a union vote was filed on Monday with the National Labor Relations Board by the Technical, Office, and Professional Union, Local 2110 UAW.

Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110, said Monday that the proposed bargaining unit at the Whitney included about 180 employees, among them curators, conservators, editors and porters.

Karissa Francis, a visitor services assistant at the Whitney who helped organize the union effort there, said the museum is generally a good place to work but that many employees there were concerned with issues of pay equity and job security.

“We believe in the institution,” Francis said. “And we believe that if our voices are heard the quality of our lives will be better.”

In response to a request for comment, the museum said in an email Monday: “The Whitney respects the staff’s desire to engage in a dialogue about collective bargaining and remains committed to supporting all staff, regardless of union affiliation.”

A wave of organizing that began just over two years ago has led to the formation of unions at large and small museums across the country. Prominent examples include the New Museum and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

That movement to unionize appears to have been spurred in large part by revelations about pay disparity, the entry of younger people into workplaces and, within the last year, a precarious job market created by the pandemic that has been reflected in layoffs or furloughs at many institutions, including the Whitney.

Local 2110 has represented employees at the Museum of Modern Art and the New-York Historical Society since the 1970s, Rosenstein said, and added employees at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in 2005.

In 2018 the union negotiated for months with management at MoMA over a contract for employees. During that time, workers wearing blue T-shirts bearing the name of the union held a rally in the museum and chanted slogans like “Modern art, ancient wages.”

Similar scenes — even using the same slogan — had played out at MoMA in 1973, 1982 and 1999. But Rosenstein said she believed the 2018 demonstrations resonated more widely, in part because they took place against a political backdrop in which younger urban people, in particular, had been galvanized to collective action by their opposition to the policies of President Trump.

“There was tremendous interest among museum workers,” she said. “We had numerous people reach out to us.”

MoMA workers referred employees at the New Museum in Lower Manhattan to Local 2110, Rosenstein said, and in early 2019 employees there voted to form a union with Local 2110.

That campaign, too, drew wide attention, especially after the New Museum hired a Kentucky-based company that marketed itself as a “team of experienced union avoidance consultants.”

Among those following developments at the New Museum was Francis, the Whitney employee. She said she found the New Museum union campaign to be “encouraging” because it provided a sense of “what you can negotiate for and how you can advocate for yourself.”

Since the New Museum effort Local 2110 has come to represent employees at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Conn., the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

“We decided to work with 2110 after conversations with other museum organizers,” said Maro Elliott, manager of institutional giving at Mass MoCA. “We really felt like we would be in good hands.”

Earlier this month staff members at the Hispanic Society of America, in Upper Manhattan, sought to form a union with Local 2110. The society, which maintains an extensive collection of Hispanic art, has a board of trustees led by Philippe de Montebello, who served for more than 30 years as the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The society has been closed to visitors since 2017 while it undergoes extensive building renovations, Local 2110 said, adding that staff members had turned to unionization when the society announced it was terminating the employee pension plan.

The Hispanic Society did not respond to email messages requesting comment, but an email addressed to the staff from the society’s director and chief executive, Guillaume Kientz, dated May 17 gave some hint of the institution’s position.

“We ask that you keep an open mind, ask questions, and make an informed decision based on your personal needs,” Kientz wrote. “I am confident that once you learn both sides of the issue you will choose to maintain the work environment that we’ve worked so hard together to create.”

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